Editorial | Support your teachers, support the strikes

On Thursday of Bush Week, the 27th of July, ANU staff will strike for better pay, working conditions, and to reverse the casualisation so rampant in the tertiary sector. The students of this University have an obligation to stand in solidarity with staff: we must support our teachers, we must support the strikes.

One of the most important jobs in society is educating future generations. And yet, our society pays the most socially useful jobs, some of the lowest wages, and lecturers and tutors are no different. They are underpaid, under-supported and overworked. Burdened not by our assessments, questions, and debates, but by the ever-increasing administrative work of the University. They are stretched thin, and to add insult to injury, they are screwed over by the ANU.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has brought several key demands to the bargaining table. Some have seen success, as Woroni has previously reported. But, where university management remains most intransigent is exactly where change is needed most. Our teachers deserve to be paid more, more because of how valuable their work is, more because of how difficult it is, and more because of the cost-of-living crisis that they must struggle through.

The ANU recently revised its previous paltry pay rise. Despite the overall increase this still includes an administrative pay rise from earlier this year, and ignores the pay rise due from 2022. The University has remained stubbornly opposed to giving casual employees – often fellow undergraduate and postgraduate students marking assessments and teaching tutorials – clear paths to permanent work. Casual research assistants are often paid from research funding grants, and the dilemma between claiming the full hours worked and eating into the research budget of a supposedly research-based university is real.  Such casual work is rife with exploitation.

Capitalist ideology preaches the ultimate freedom of the market. The ultimate freedom of the worker is to strike for better conditions, to stand in solidarity and withhold the most valuable part of the production process: human labour. But capitalism does not practise what it preaches, and industrial action is increasingly curtailed, while corporate freedom – from profiteering to monopolisation and downright fraud – remains untouchable. In this climate, every strike reiterates the importance and power of workers, even as those workers are straw manned as “intellectual elites.” ANU staff should strike, so that they can reassert their power as the foundation of this University.

Students are familiar by now with the paradox of apparently being the customer of the University, and yet constantly having their demands rejected, their voices ignored. When we stand in solidarity with staff, we remind the University that it is not run by vice-chancellors or deputy vice-chancellors who want to cut degrees. We remind them that hardworking teachers and students are the lifeblood of this University. The relationship between the student and the teacher is the nexus of learning and education, this relationship cannot exist when teachers cannot live off their wages.

Our University’s status is slipping. We’re no longer amongst the top-ranking universities in Australia, and our research funding has fallen, driving lower revenues. Our University increasingly leans into predatory, exploitative systems of revenue generation. From dodgy financing deals leading to drastic rent-increases to prosecuting students over parking fines, it is creating a conflict between the institution and the person, whether they be student or staff. Higher pay and better support for staff is going to improve learning outcomes, not spending $17 million on a health precinct when the researchers to work there are not paid enough.

The corporatisation of the University goes hand in hand with poorer working standards. As managerial and finance-sector thinking has infiltrated the tertiary sector, staff have seen themselves lumped with more and more administrative work. Even as the genuinely helpful administrative work, such as special considerations and accessibility concerns, is still considered voluntary.

Woroni is a proudly independent media outlet, but on this, we agree with ANUSA: staff working conditions are student learning conditions. If we won’t stand in solidarity with teachers out of principle, then we can at least support them knowing that the better paid they are and the more flexible their work is, the better it will be for us.

Take just one example: assessment marking. Often, casual staff are paid per assessment marked, or paid per hour with the expectation that they mark a certain number of assessments in that time. Both practices drive markers to spend less time on each assessment, increasing the likelihood of unfair marks on students. The NTEU demand for pathways out of casualisation can help ensure markers are not pressured and exploited, and that students’ assessments are not rushed through.

And in turn, solidarity begets solidarity. Rent for next year has increased again, meaning that the cheapest student accommodation now exceeds the average rent one person pays living in a three bedroom sharehouse. We are seeing continued cuts in degrees and changes to the curriculum that remove the flexibility so many students desire. ANU has the highest sexual assault rate of any Group of Eight university. If we stand with staff, they will stand with us at our next protest. Stand with no one, and no one stands with you.

It is unclear how the staff strikes will progress from Bush Week. In other, more corporate universities like the University of Sydney, the strikes continued for months. Since the ANU NTEU branch announced its intent to strike, the ANU has moved forward on some issues. But, if management digs its heel in, we may see strikes throughout Semester 2. We may see picket lines and multi-day strikes and as frustrating as some may find these, it is our obligation to support better standards for educators. Staff will already be under pressure to compromise and give in to the University’s demands. Students have an obligation to stand with staff, to remove the guilt-tripping and emotional argument and say that no, strikes do not negatively impact students, not in the long run.

Support your teachers, turn out to the rally on the 27th of July. Don’t complain when class is cancelled because of industrial action, let your striking teachers know you support them, that you want this too. Remind the University who really matters.

Support the strikes.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.