Twelve minutes. That’s how many minutes I get paid to mark a one-thousand-word essay: to read it, mark it, and give feedback. And then I repeat the process, once over one-hundred times. I doubt that I have ever managed to mark an essay within the given time limit, and I have spent many nights marking in the early hours, wishing I could just have ten minutes with each student to give constructive feedback and answer their questions. I am sure many students have been disappointed by my comments, and wonder if they know how much the university constrains the time I am able to give them.
This is just one of the effects of the increasing casualisation of the university workforce. Half of the undergraduate teaching at Australian universities is done by casual staff. For staff, this means more precarious work conditions, and for students, it means no consulting hours to ask for feedback or support. At the same time, restructuring in Australian universities swells the ranks of management, and the percentage of student fees that goes towards teaching is dropping in proportion to those that go towards administration. Meanwhile, the university experiences increasingly truncated semesters, course cuts, staff cuts, and diminishing student-to-teacher ratios. These changes are the result of a neoliberal restructuring of the university according to a new economic model, which seeks to run universities as if they are businesses. These issues surfaced during the bargaining for a new enterprise agreement at Sydney University, and a 48-hour strike was called last week.
The strike was called by the NTEU and the CPSU for a whole host of reasons pertaining to the new agreement, with disagreement centring on management’s desire to remove various protections, such as commitments to anti-discrimination and intellectual freedom, from the agreement, as well as attempts to limit the unions’ freedom to organise in the workplace. Working conditions, particularly increasing casualisation and the proposed abolition of the 40:40:20 provision, which states that academics’ workload should be 40 per cent research, 40 per cent teaching and 20 per cent administrative work, were also a topic of contention in the bargaining process.
People joined the pickets to support the NTEU’s bargaining efforts, but also because of wider concerns about how the university is changing. Very few, if any mainstream media outlets, have reported on these issues, and university management has consistently misrepresented them. Even The Australian quoted the 7 per cent pay rise claim directly from management’s email. It was hardly surprising that few of the students I spoke to at the strike had any idea why it had been called. When I started to talk about some of the reasons for the strike, many students were shocked and surprised. Many were concerned about the conditions of workers, and supported their struggle, but also realised how these work conditions would impact on their own education. I suspect that, before the strike, they had never been able to talk with staff about how these experiences affect us all.
Many students crossing the picket expressed regret, support, and real stress that they would fall behind if they didn’t attend, despite promises from management that they wouldn’t be penalised. Perhaps they felt these promises were a little hollow, and with no clear process offered by management for students to raise concerns. I think they were right to feel worried.
I had conversations with students who opposed the strike, and their comments revealed a great deal about how they viewed the university. They talked about how much money they’d spent to be there, and were dismissive of staff concerns. Some already saw themselves in the position of management, saying they thought staff were greedy and should have less sick leave and be paid less. Students told staff on the picket to “fuck off”; one student told a government department lecturer to “get a job”. These students already saw the staff at the university as service providers, paid to work for them. They did not feel any solidarity for the people who made their university experience possible. On some occasions they were aggressive; some even spat on and physically attacked picketers.
For me, this strike exposed more clearly the class politics of the university. It allowed me, for the first time, to start talking to people I didn’t know about what the university should be. It provided a space in which the small subset of very privileged students who have always made me feel uncomfortable started to say what they really thought. It was eye opening as well as threatening.
The level of cooperation between university management, security and riot police was also alarming. Riot cops were called to the campus and arrested people violently for chanting in a lecture. It wasn’t clear what law they were supposed to be breaking, but the police violence was a clear sign that the university was happy to silence dissent, and demonstrated the complicity of the state in this silencing.
In the aftermath, it seems that the majority of students at Sydney Uni supported the strike, but some have voiced concerns about disruptive tactics. Some argue that pickets at the gates and noise protests in lecture theatres and libraries were unhelpful, because they limited students the right to choose whether to support the strike, or unfairly affected their education. I think that the short-term inconvenience of a small number of disrupted lectures is minor compared to the much greater inconvenience of an increasingly casualised workforce. Further, I was surprised by the language of rights and free choice used by students crossing the picket; I don’t know if they realised they were telling me that they had a right to my labour. I felt that the rights they talked of were thinly veiled claims of entitlement and privilege. Other critics have argued that disruptive actions went too far. I hope that people can engage a little more critically with where they have chosen to draw the line of acceptable political activity — it seems they have taken the police involvement as the point at which reasonable protest ends, and I do not think the police are in a good position to make that decision.
 For example, in 2003 at UWS, 62.5 per cent of student fees were spent on teaching and learning, in 2012 it was only 38.3 per cent.