Australia’s two main parties plan accelerated restructuring of business-friendly universities

The Liberal-National government and the opposition Labor Party have each unveiled in recent weeks plans to further exploit the COVID-19 disaster to continue transforming Australian public universities into business units responding to narrow demands for training and research of the corporate ruling class.

Part of Macquarie University in Sydney [Credit:]

Whether the coalition or Labor form the next government after the looming federal election, slated for March or May, the devastating attacks of the past two years on jobs, conditions and the quality of education will accelerate.

In the government’s program, announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a speech to business leaders last month, four “pioneer” universities would receive small funding increases, totaling some $ 200 million, for the centers. research related to “the advancement of Australian manufacturing”.

The government has deprived universities of funds throughout the pandemic, on top of the sweeping cuts imposed over the past decade and a half by previous governments, the Coalition and Labor. Now he is using this financial pressure to step up his demand that universities meet the needs of employers, investors and the military.

This policy, set out in Morrison’s speech to the Business Council of Australia, which represents big business, will give each university $ 50 million to help “commercialize” research in the government’s “priority areas” of defense, space, resource technology, food and beverage. , clean energy and medical products.

The four universities will be selected through a “competitive” process that will take into account their “marketability” as demonstrated by partnerships with industry; co-financing; intellectual property agreements; promotion for academics who focus on commercialization, not just pure research; and the appointment of an industry leader to oversee the hub.

On behalf of the universities leadership, Universities Australia CEO Catriona Jackson hailed the announcement as “a clear recognition by the government of the central role universities play in productivity, prosperity and capacity building sovereign”.

The “priority area” of defense and Jackson’s reference to “sovereign capability” indicate the growing integration of universities in preparations for involvement in US-led wars, particularly against China. Already, a number of universities host research facilities related to the military industry, and academic research on designated strategic technologies is subject to controls and restrictions.

The push for “commercialization” comes on top of the government’s shift to funding tied to the production of “ready-to-use graduates” and “micro-certified” short courses to fill employer training gaps.

These are all steps towards implementing the agenda set out in August in an EY board report that proclaimed higher education “dead”.

EY’s report, based on interviews with 32 vice-chancellors and other senior officials from Australian and New Zealand universities, called for an end to universities as they currently exist, to be replaced by professional services and business research. He declared in capital letters: “HIGHER EDUCATION IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE KNOWLEDGE SERVICES SECTOR! “

The government plans to go further in this direction. This month, it released a final report “A Review of University-Industry Collaboration in Teaching and Learning” which recommends “actions that government, institutions of higher education and industry can take to improve. promote greater collaboration in the sector ”. These include “increased industry engagement in teaching and learning through enhanced course curricula”.

In response to Morrison’s speech, the main union covering university workers, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), rushed to assure him and his government that there was no difference with the emphasis on business needs.

NTEU National President Alison Barnes issued a press release in which she pleaded: “There is nothing in existing industrial relations agreements that hinders the commercialization of research and the NTEU would be happy to explain. that to the Prime Minister and his Minister of Education.

Barnes said the NTEU has always welcomed a “cash injection,” but Morrison couldn’t claim to care about the university sector when he “let 35,000 public university workers lose their jobs over the past 12 years. last months”.

This is a sham. The ever-increasing destruction of university jobs – which the NTEU previously estimated at 90,000 job cuts in 2020 alone – was only possible because the NTEU opposed any unified national struggle of staff and students. against the assault.

After the pandemic struck in March 2020, the NTEU proposed a nationwide deal with university employers to cut wages by up to 15%, while cutting “at least 12,000 jobs”. Despite outraged opposition from NTEU members, which effectively thwarted the deal, the union imposed similar sacrifices, university by university.

The bipartisan nature of the campaign against university workers and students was underscored when Labor leader Anthony Albanese held a campaign launch-style rally last week. He said a Labor government, if elected, would fund “up to” 20,000 additional university places in 2022 and 2023, while providing access to 465,000 free places in technical and further education colleges ( TAFE) in subjects appearing on a priority list of the National Skills Commission.

Education should be free at all levels, as a fundamental social right, and not just for certain “priority” TAFE courses. There was, of course, no suggestion by Albanese to abolish university fees, which the Hawke Labor government re-imposed in 1987.

Labeled as a “Future Made in Australia Skills Plan”, Labor’s blueprint is no less employer-focused than that of the Coalition. Albanese said: “This will help address skills shortages and meet future skill needs by training Australians for jobs such as engineering, nursing, technology and teaching.”

The new university places would focus on areas such as digital security and cybersecurity, and advanced manufacturing. Albanese also mentioned early childhood educators and professionals caring for the elderly and the disabled. These are “priorities” for the ruling class as it plans a military conflict and seeks to maximize the workforce available to exploit.

An article in the Australian, a flagship Murdoch media outlet, hailed Albanese for dropping Labor Party 2019 election pledges to increase funding for universities. He noted: “The Labor Party’s higher education policy for the 2022 election has nothing to do with the largesse of 2019, when it pledged to increase university funding by $ 10 billion. over 10 years.

The newspaper said the additional university seats would cost less than $ 500 million, which is only a 3% increase in funding. He estimated that less than 20,000 places would actually be created with this sum of money.

In August, shadow Labor Minister of Education Tanya Plibersek addressed an elite business meeting, presenting a Labor government as the best way to step up restructuring of higher education companies, more or less in accordance with the agenda of the EY report.

Plibersek proposed a bipartisan “deal” between the two ruling parties, unions, businesses, university management, students and parents to “make university reform hold” in the interest of “national prosperity.” “.

These developments underline the warnings issued since the start of the pandemic by the Socialist Equality Party and the Committee for Public Education. The unprecedented destruction of jobs, conditions and prices can only be fought on the basis of a totally opposing political perspective that rejects the diktats of financial markets and employers. That is, a socialist program in which free and first-class education is a right for all.

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