The Struggle at Our Universities

Rutherford House Lecture Theatre

In mid-April the University of Waikato announced plans to cut up to twelve jobs from its Management courses, following on from six cuts in its Science faculty already. Across the sector in 2020-2021 hundreds of jobs have been cut. Factoring in “voluntary” redundancies, jobs have gone in significant, damaging numbers: 300 at Auckland, 71 at AUT, 74 at Massey, 100 at Victoria and more than a hundred at Canterbury and Lincoln combined. This is to say nothing of the fixed-term positions not renewed, casual staff not called up and other forms of hard-to-measure cuts to teaching, tutoring and student contact. The universities’ managers are now mulling over cutting courses in public, and students are making do in classrooms packed with more being taught by fewer staff.

The silence from Labour is a noise all of its own. What we are witnessing at the moment, across the university sector, is a sustained assault, generated from within the sector itself, against tertiary education as part of public education. It’s vital that staff and students prepare for a fightback. Doing so involves recognising the forces at play.

A Manufactured Crisis
Most media reports treat job cuts as if they were a fact of nature outside of political calculation, and that their connection to the COVID-19 pandemic is simple and obvious. “Our” international education sector is worth $5b to “the economy”, the analysis goes, and so, without international students, cuts need to be made. The Waikato cuts, for example, Radio New Zealand’s John Gerritsen describes as “due to finances”.

Superficially, of course, this is true: there are deficits now where international student fees once were. But the universities, as large, public, government-supported bodies are well placed to take on debt in the short-term to figure out longer-term problems. Senior managements deciding to cut staff are, therefore, making political calculations: it’s better to cut teaching staff, they are telling us, than to veer away from the business management model that’s now the norm in higher education.

And funding systems are hardly neutral, either. The Key National government oversaw increases in fees for students from 2011 to 2016 – up on average from $6,246 in 2010 to $7,385 in 2016 – while seeing spending on tertiary education as a percentage of GDP decline from 2 percent in 2011-12 to 1.7 percent in 2016-17. This saw participation in tertiary education decline through the Key years. Austerity was ideologically driven, seeing the government boost funding for STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) while freezing funding per humanities student at the same time. The deficits the universities face – coming on the back of cuts to Humanities departments across the country through the 2010s – are, therefore, politically based.

What might the solution be? COVID-19 and government responses internationally have prompted wide-ranging discussions on how we might run education differently. The reform of the Polytechnic sector under Labour, removing the competition for students between Polytechnics, offers a very modest example of a move away from the winner-takes-all, competition-at-all costs orthodoxy of the past decades. Both developments are unsettling the Vice Chancellors, who are more frightened of losing their ‘autonomy’ and fiefdoms than they are of sacking staff. Message after message from Universities NZ, the university bosses’ representative body, makes this clear. Chris Whelan, for Universities NZ, even offered comment to Radio NZ earlier this year that the government funding had “got it right”, even as deficits and job losses were being reported,

Key and National managed, for nine years, to skew education away from being a public good and towards being more tightly integrated to the needs of business and the capitalist class. All the leaders of the universities nationally are the product of that period and its priorities. As Brian Roper puts it, although Key’s government “did not make any major changes to the overall configuration of legislation […] it successfully imposed fiscal austerity and a substantial series of incremental changes in a strategically and tactically cunning manner. There were no headline changes with an axe being wielded in full public view. Rather, the government achieved its goals with a succession of planned surgical strikes and multiple surgical incisions.”

COVID, and the closed borders, exposed the wounds of these “surgical incisions”. The university sector was reliant on international students’ fees for its plans, and saw itself in business terms as catering to this market. This helps explain why the Vice Chancellors were amongst the most aggressive groups in criticising the government’s successful COVID elimination programme, with Victoria University’s Grant Guilford scoffing in March 2020 that border closures had “no basis in public health”, and Vice Chancellors through 2020 clamouring for the borders to open.
The contrast between public education and public health, as public goods, and the profit-driven mindset of the universities’ bosses has never been clearer.

There is a Class Struggle
Universities are not businesses that exist primarily to make a profit, but they are thoroughly integrated into the capitalist system and serve the needs of the capitalist class. They do this through the manufacture of ideological justifications for the system; gearing teaching towards business needs and the expectations of industry; subsidising research and development; and, in the case of international students, enmeshing students in local patterns of exploitation as wage labourers. The universities’ bosses’ world outlook reflects that of the capitalist class they are a part of. Universities have, in the twenty-first century, become more authoritarian, more hostile to subjects and studies that do not map neatly into business needs, and less critical spaces.

The Vice Chancellor are part of the ruling class. They earn salaries higher than that of the Prime Minister – more than $700,000 per year at the University of Auckland and more than half a million at Victoria and Otago – and, through a network of social and professional contacts and commitments, prove their value by aligning their institutions with capital’s needs.

COVID has exposed these class relations that are necessary background to making sense of the cuts we have seen. Why, in an era of historically low interest rates and growing domestic student enrolments, would university leaders decline debt and carry out damaging cuts? The moves, from a purely financial point of view, seem self-defeating. But we need to see them as part of a wider class struggle. This is a struggle both within the university, as managements prioritise their own projects and wield power over staff jobs and student learning, and a class struggle across society more broadly, with the universities’ leaders holding onto a model they anticipate may be challenged by the Labour government. We’d rather make cuts and stay in control, the reasoning seems to go, than seek further funding and risk change.

That risk, sadly, doesn’t seem to have much basis in reality at the moment. After some initial moves in their first term around fees-free study, Labour’s approach to tertiary education now seems as listless as its approach to anything else. It’s a scandal, for example, that a $25m fund for supporting student mental health has not spent anything so far.

We Can Fight Back – and We Can Win
Seeing these cuts and their motivation as part of class struggle gives us a way to see how our side can win, however. The cuts and closures, particularly in socially critical subjects, across Australia, Britain and the United States reminds us that this is a global trend in advanced capitalist countries. So our job is not to convince individual bosses of the folly of their actions, but rather to build alliances that can win.

The first step, on every campus, needs to be a determined campaign of student and staff unions against any and all job losses. These cuts are, as Tertiary Education Union President Tina Smith puts it, “ridiculous, short-sighted, poor management decision.” There is a basis to build broad unity between students and staff: students, after all, will suffer for cuts to teaching. That campaign needs to emphasise the ability of students and staff – in strikes, protests, and unified action – to break the narrative that there is no alternative to austerity.

A second phase needs to be focused on the government. While Labour have not intensified the attacks National carried out, they are allowing the university sector to continue largely unchanged. The cuts are a challenge from those who want to see the sector stay unchanged. It will take concerted, noisy, impatient staff and student action to make tertiary education a public issue and point of pressure.

That won’t be easy. But the alternative we face is more of the same regime of austerity and the gradual dismantling of our universities by endless cuts as spaces for critical thought and public education. How many more jobs are going to go? The time to fight back is now.

Dougal, an officer in the TEU, writes in a personal capacity.