Andrew Bolt, Karl Marx and the casualisation of Australian universities

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Despite the fantasies of Andrew Bolt and the hard right of Australian politics, even though universities employ the odd Marxist, there is nothing Marxist about universities, writes Dr Benjamin T. Jones.                   

THE IDEA THAT public universities serve as a meeting place for Marxists and the intelligentsia of the extreme left is still popular in the public imagination.

Earlier this year, hard right culture warrior Andrew Bolt, expressed his outrage that, according to him:

'... our universities are the last refuge of the Marxist.'

How did Bolt support his claim that

'... we’re paying for the teaching of Marxist politics'?

He noted with alarm that 12 academics were scheduled speakers at the 2014 Marxism conference hosted by Melbourne University.

To put this in perspective, the National Tertiary Education Union estimates that 180,000 people are employed by Australian universities. Just 12 of them speaking at a conference hardly seems to justify Bolt’s suggestion that 'scores' of academics are intent on using public money to indoctrinate students with Marxism.

What Bolt’s article does demonstrate – other than he does not seem to understand the difference between Marxism and communism – is that the popular misconception of Marxist universities is still alive and well.

If universities really are the last refuge of Marxism, then why are they being run increasingly like private companies and why is the university sector not bucking the trend of casualisation in its workforce? It seems extraordinary, but if you randomly walked into a lecture or tutorial at an Australian public university, the chances are about 50/50 that you will find a casual academic leading the class.

While the percentage of casual or sessional staff is lower in Australia than in the United States, universities in both countries are offering fewer permanent positions and are increasingly reliant on staff paid by the hour.

An article in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education notes that:

'... the number of sessional teaching staff in Australian universities [has] more than doubled between 1990 and 2005.'

While the casualisation of the sector may be good for some universities’ bottom lines, the demoralising impact on staff is keenly felt.

According to Griffith University’s Work and Careers in Australian Universities Survey, 60 per cent of casual academics earn less that $499 a week and that is only during active teaching weeks. The semester breaks leave casual academics financially vulnerable, often needing to supplement their income outside the university sector or rely on family, partners, pensions or Centrelink. This financially precarious form of employment often leaves casual academics unable to secure loans or plan for the future with confidence.

In many cases, casual academics do not have access to the same funding and research opportunities as permanent staff. There is often limited or no professional development offered. Even basic office equipment, like a computer and telephone, is often denied as large numbers of casual academics are expected to share a small number of communal work stations. While casual academics are paid only for the time they are physically in a classroom teaching, they are effectively coerced into unpaid labour as it is expected they spend adequate time preparing lessons and responding to student enquiries.

The negative impacts of casualisation are bad for staff and students also. The independent Lives on Hold report suggested that the divide between blue and white collar workers has been replaced by secure and insecure employment.

According to NTEU National President, Jeannie Rea, casual academics:

'... cannot plan for a future because they don’t have secure work, [they] feel exploited and treated like disposable commodities.'

 In a recent article in Connect, casual academic of seven years, Rebecca Goodway described the “destructive by-product” of long term casualisation as feeling “undervalued”, “dispensable” and “worthless”.

So what would Karl Marx have to say about all this?

In Capital, Marx critiques the control and exploitation of labour power in a capitalist political economy. He notes that, “All the capitalist cares for, is to reduce the labourer’s individual consumption as far as possible to what is strictly necessary”. By placing value only on the direct production of capital, rather than the worker themself, the capitalist system ultimately leads to a process of dehumanisation.

According to Marx, capitalism:

'... regards the proletarian, i.e. he who lives without capital and ground rent from labour alone ... as nothing more than a worker ... like a horse, he must receive enough to enable him to work. It does not consider him, during the time when he is not working, as a human being.'

It is hard to imagine Marx being anything but scathing of the casualisation trend in Australian universities. Without job security from semester to semester, without holiday or sick pay and without a realistic expectation of eventual promotion or career development, casual academics are effectively trapped in a cycle of wage slavery. After eight or more years of full time study, their only options are to leave academia and start again in a new field or to continue to accept low, uncertain pay in the hope of eventually landing a coveted permanent position.

As Marx would have it:

'Slavery has therefore been perpetuated on the earth, but under a sweeter name.'

Australian universities have historically been seen as a great public asset, but this view is rapidly changing. The new orthodoxy understands universities to be part of a for-profit education industry. Even Universities Australia sees the sector in these terms.

The recent Agenda for Higher Education report described education as Australia’s

'... fourth largest export industry behind iron ore, coal and gold, and ahead of tourism, natural gas and crude oil.'

If education is reduced to a commodity like any other, the demoralising influence of casualisation and the negative impact on students becomes a necessary trade off to ensure operating costs are reduced as far as possible.

Universities in Australia are not Marxist and with the introduction of fee deregulation and HECS-HELP for private colleges, they will increasingly resemble any other competitive industry. Despite their connections to the state, they are run along capitalist lines and are part of a larger capitalist system.

Marx did not pursue an academic career in his own day and it is hard to imagine him finding any appeal in Australian universities if he were alive now. Far from finding a ready home for his ideas, he would likely advocate collective action and revolution.

Universities may still house the odd Marxist but there is nothing Marxist about universities.

You can follow Dr Jones on Twitter @BenjaminTJones1.

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