Why is Sydney University on strike? Because students are not our ‘clients’

The Guardian, Friday August 30 2013. Read the original here.

On Saturday, thousands of Year 12 students and their parents will visit Sydney University for Open Day, one of the many such exercises around the country. A full brace of marketing techniques will be deployed to convince would-be “clients” to choose Sydney’s “brand” over those of its “competitors”.

This year, however, will be different. At Sydney, the 2013 Open Day falls during the most intense industrial dispute on any Australian campus for generations. Visitors will be greeted by National Tertiary Education Union picket lines. Staff will distribute stickers and balloons highlighting the importance of decent pay and conditions for quality education, and ask students to join them over a barbecue to hear how degrading staff conditions will harm their studies.

The dispute at the university was triggered by management’s proposed enterprise agreement, the contract that governs work conditions at the university. Management wanted to strip away numerous clauses, including – incredibly – an explicit commitment to intellectual freedom and anti-discriminatory employment practices. It also sought to degrade pay, conditions and sick leave. My students this year have now lost six days of class to strikes.

Union members’ Open Day plans appear to have alarmed Sydney’s managers – more so, in fact, than the loss of lectures on the previous six strike days. Marketing now looms so large in administrators’ consciousness that threatened disruption to Open Day constitutes a greater crisis than more than a week of actually lost classes.

There is certainly a role for some kind of modest open day at universities, especially less well known ones. But there was a time when no university felt the need to engage in any of the hoopla of today’s marketing extravaganzas. The fact they now do is a consequence of the intensely commodified environment which higher education has – often willingly – entered.

This commodification is just one facet of the disastrous hijacking of universities by corporate interests and ideology. It might have been hoped that senior academics would show some critical distance from the corporate shibboleths of our age. Far from it: vice-chancellors and their deputies now enthusiastically enact the values of competition, league-tables, performance indicators and similar managerial fetishes with all the fervour of recent converts.

Students, correspondingly, are increasingly encouraged to view their education as a commercial transaction, and themselves as clients. Except that they’re getting an increasingly shoddy deal, with cost-cutting bringing reductions in the number of course offerings and increases in casually employed teaching staff – a trend the union’s current campaign has successfully opposed, in the face of strenuous management resistance.

No clearer symbol of students’ reinterpretation as clients could be asked for than the remarkable transformation of the Sydney University student card. As an undergraduate in the 1990s, I witnessed its evolution from a laminated sheet of cardboard to a plastic photo-ID. These days, the student card can come as ANZ Visa cards with the university crest overlaid.

The extraordinary salaries and bonuses paid to vice-chancellors and other upper managers – Sydney’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, earned almost $0.9m in 2012 – signal unequivocally that universities see their leaders not as scholars and intellectuals but as chief executives.

This university-as-business logic means not only turning students into clients, but also servicing them as cheaply as possible. That is directly reflected in the current dispute. Once inflation and the timing of the enterprise agreement are taken into account, Sydney management is offering a pay cut in real terms to the staff who teach students and run libraries, faculty offices and labs. At the same time as they receive extravagant bonuses and increase student numbers, Sydney’s senior managers want to leave staff worse off.

The issue is far from one just about personal financial circumstances: it concerns the institution’s priorities and the value it places on the day-to-day work of its staff.

Conceding a pay-cut now, in a context of intensifying work and from a management itself living high on the hog, will set a dangerous precedent, signalling that staff will accept their work simply being devalued. Management claim that there is no leeway in the budget to avoid cutting pay. That just means that a fair and modest pay rise is their lowest priority. Sydney is among the world’s most expensive cities, and staff are always being asked to work harder. The NSW auditor general found in May that the university ran a $137m surplus in 2012, the year with the strongest revenue growth of the last five.

Taking student education seriously means not trying to get more for less. That argument should be obvious. Saturday’s Open Day will be the occasion for staff to directly tell prospective “clients” about why working conditions matter for quality learning.

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