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Australian universities suffer job losses over coronavirus concerns

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Some teachers at the University of Queensland have lost 17 weeks of work over coronavirus fears (Image by Dan Jensen)

As Australia adapts to the COVID-19 pandemic, major consequences are being felt in the tertiary education sector, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

IT SEEMED a mightily fine and cosy conversation on Radio National’s Life Matters. The feeling among the participants on 11 March was that COVID-19 was serious, but something to be gotten over. It featured the lacklustre chief executive Catriona Jackson of Universities Australia, the unconvincing Dr Alison Barnes, President of the National Tertiary Education Union and a very compliant James McDonald, head of the Student Union at Monash University’s Clayton Campus. 

A few minutes into the discussion and something disconcerting became evident. The “she’ll be right, mate” attitude, meretricious and grating, was studding the conversation, despite casual employees not having adequate protection or students getting a subpar deal from universities keen to stick to their bottom lines. Students in Australia were understanding, explained McDonald. (No riots? No indignant revolutions?) Jackson was in “furious agreement” with the panellists, though made it clear that “industrial relations” was not within the purview of Universities Australia.

Such calamities give bad decision-makers alibis, neat escape routes from liability. Decisions made by universities to treat Chinese students as eternal, ever-giving cash cows were warned against as a financial hazard. To have done so was nothing less than an extravagant gamble and liable to result in massive pruning with a change in fortunes.   

When asked about the implications of over-indulgent investment and reliance on the exploitable Chinese student, Jackson took the same view as European imperialism of the 19th century. Australian universities were effectively shouldering a civilisational burden in spreading their tentacles into other markets. What would you have them do being autarkic and inward-looking?

In dodging the question on Life Matters, Jackson showed the confusion that belies discussions about the corporatised university. Student welfare was less relevant than the bling, glitz and propaganda of a “research” institution.   

The first staff to suffer, as they tend to be in these situations, are the sessionals who toil to keep the teaching system afloat. They are gotten on the cheap, denied benefits and only work for the duration of brief, semester-to-semester contracts. They form the precariat used, misused and ignored by the casual venality of ongoing staff and top-heavy management.

Despite students providing the bulk of income to universities, the institutions continue to behave with a callousness to those who assist in facilitating the services. The only thing that matters in modern university speak is “research” and “grants”, despite such income being subsidiary to the returns from broader teaching.

In the last week of February, Francine Chidgey, a casual in the employ of the Institute of Continuing and TESOL Education at the University of Queensland, noted glumly how half of the students in her section were from China:

“I’ve been told that I won’t have teaching shifts for 17 weeks. About 40 of my colleagues are in the same position, with others receiving only one or two days’ work per week and occasional relief work.” 

The shock to the Australian tertiary sector has continued in March and bound to widen with the addition of new countries. Italy has been added to China, Iran and South Korea. A note of urgency has also been struck with the declaration by the World Health Organisation that COVID-19 is now a pandemic.

Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated:

“We expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of affected countries climb even higher.” 

Just to underline the point, Southern Cross University closed its Gold Coast and Lismore campuses on Wednesday after a Philippines-based member of staff was identified as having COVID-19. 

Such conditions of concern and fear make glory days for opportunists and Australia’s university management class is reaping. Downsizing operations is all the rage. The first to do so with some brazenness was the University of Tasmania.

The university’s Vice-Chancellor Rufus Black described in a letter to staff a turbulent environment, one in which the institution had been “working against powerful forces” in seeking sustainability. There were, however, such factors as the “overreliance on China as a market for international education and what is now emerging as a pandemic”. This meant the generous use of a financial razor, cutting course offerings from 514 to 120.

He added:

“Thanks to the good work of our teams responding to the issue, the majority of our students in China and subject to travel restrictions have started to study with us. But as we know the spread of the illness continues to shift.  We have a long way to go in dealing with this issue and its consequences will last well beyond this year.”

Black’s reference to coronavirus shows the deviousness inherent in such institutional behaviour. He seeks to minimise the decisions made about China and the impact of COVID-19 by suggesting that the university had been planning cutbacks all along.

Changes were already needed to “course architecture”, with a greater emphasis on simplicity: 

“In the face of it, we are not making enough progress to be the right size to be sustainable even in the short time.” 

But a guilty mind, of sorts, is evident, namely a confession on the VC’s part that relying so heavily on the Chinese market had been a “known strategic risk”. (Prosecutors of corporate negligence and criminality, take note.)

The conduct of the University of Tasmania is a stark rebuff to the half paternal and half panicked urgings of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to employers “to support your workers, by keeping them employed. Hold on to your people, because you will need them on the bounce back on the other side”. Holding on to people, as Morrison puts it, is unlikely to feature for decision-makers who should, by rights, turn in their resignations and vanish before the viral haze. But that’s white-collar criminality for you.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is a lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.

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