On Thursday morning, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) staged a protest outside Liberal Party headquarters on William Street, East Sydney. The protest is part of the union’s #SaveHigherEd campaign.
The university sector has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is primarily because of the loss of revenue from international students.
As a consequence, the University of Sydney, for example, expects a $470m shortfall for the calendar year. Job losses are looming large.
The strain on the university sector is especially problematic given that the pandemic has made research more important than ever. One analysis predicted a loss of 21,000 full-time staff over the next six months.
Travel bans have also harmed researcher mobility. More than 9,000 international postgraduate research students have not been able to return to work this year. Postgraduate students mark up 57 per cent of the university-based research workforce and a third of those come from overseas.
The NTEU is now campaigning for JobKeeper wage subsidies to be extended to universities. Current regulations require the revenue of large organisations to have dropped by 50 per cent for them to become eligible. University revenue has fallen by about 40 per cent.
Even before the pandemic, however, the relationship between the Liberals and the higher education union were hardly amiable. The union broadly opposes the commercialisation of education, while the Liberal position, as Amanda Vanstone put it during the Howard years, is that “universities must embrace the marketplace and become customer-focused business enterprises.”
The NTEU, however, has struggled with internal opposition during the campaign. On 13 May, the leadership pitched a National Jobs Protection Framework, which includes provisions for 15 per cent wage cuts in exchange for a commitment to not stand down permanent staff involuntarily.
Some NTEU members have criticised the leadership for leading with concessions. Embarrassingly for the union, University of Melbourne management rejected the proposal, arguing they had better ways “to protect the interests of our people.”
The protests shape up as a warning shot at the beginning of a long campaign. Like everything related to Covid-19, the dynamic of the pandemic can change so quickly that’s it’s difficult to predict what direction the situation will go.