If You Don't Fight, You Lose

It is disappointing to see some staff and students being sucked in to the ANU’s slash and burn forums and suggesting ways to implement the $51m worth of Gillard government cuts to the ANU over the next two years.

Over the last 3 decades there has as a consequence of the neoliberalisation of Universities by both major parties been a number of trends in higher education unleashed – underfunding, greater and greater reliance on the student ‘market’,  the proletarianisation of the academic workforce and the increasing precarity of employment.

Between 1995 and 2010 for example funding per student fell 23% in real terms. The uncapping of student places in 2012 without a concomitant increase in funding will see the per capita student underfunding accelerate.

The neoliberal philosophy of the Gillard government explains its most recent $2.3 bn of cuts (on top of a billion last year and a billion the year before). These massive cuts will be borne by staff and students.

The biggest ‘cost’ the University has is wages. This is and will be the focus of the neoliberals and bean counters in charge of the ANU. The ravaging of the School of Music last year and the current freeze on the recruitment of professional staff are but preludes to a massive attack on staff and conditions.

Higher education is built on the back of the unpaid labour of its staff. ‘Efficiency’ dividends will increase the unpaid working day for all staff. On top of that, ‘unprofitable’ courses will go, along with their staff. That was the logic of the School of Music attacks and if unchallenged that logic will spread across the university to destroy unit after unit and course after course. It is already happening in some areas of the University.

For students these changes will mean less unit and course choice, more students in remaining courses, increasing debt, worsening infrastructure, increasingly stressed and harried staff paying less attention to their needs and further training in the world of neoliberalism.

There are two ways to respond. One is to sit down with the butchers and discuss how best to cut higher education’s throat. The other is to fight against the cuts.

Last year we had a glimpse of a fightback. The response of staff, students and the community to the attacks on the School of Music showed the potential existed for a militant campaign mobilising thousands in defence of the School and the idea of higher education as a public good. That potential was not built and the defence of the School was as a consequence defeated.

On May Day this year 200 students and staff demonstrated against Labor’s neoliberal higher education cuts. We marched to Andrew Leigh’s office chanting slogans and wanting to continue the fight.

It is this idea of resistance, of fighting to defend our own interests, which 30 years of neoliberalism and union and Labor Party class collaboration have destroyed.

Our task has to be to rebuild that fighting spirit and action today on the campuses specifically but across workplaces more generally. If that doesn’t happen then the bleak future for higher education as a profit centre for business is assured.

As the BLF used to say: ‘If you don’t fight, you lose.’  The stark choice facing students and staff at Universities today is to fight to defend higher education or to surrender.