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Missive from a uni in peak crisis-austerity mode
a piece from August 2020, re-published in August 2022
In the middle of the month, Wednesday two weeks ago, the VC and some key members of exec/operations addressed us in a ‘town hall’ Zoom meeting.
It was surreal: the VC appeared from what looked like the US government’s Situation Room: banks of flat screen TVs, strange red and green lighting in the background. The whole thing was very Strangelovian. I was walking along the Maribyrnong River watching my phone beam it to me on Teams; a week later on that same stretch I saw cops and military marching in formation, in masks, but very close together.
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The structure of the meeting was such that the VC was in a compere role. He answered 0 questions posed to him, parrying them to his other staff, and said nearly nothing. Another exec, XX, began with a soft on acknowledgment of country that emphasised Merri Creek and the name of the current indigenous season. They also mentioned that they practise mindfulness. This was also jarring, in the Situation Room.
After that, we moved into an overall account of how things stood. This was prefigured as crisis, unprecedented, etc, etc. I was therefore shocked to learn: the figures weren’t as bad as all that. The revenue outlook for 2020 was a 175 million dollar reduction, 12% of revenue (you can extrapolate from that that XXXX is a going concern of a 1.4 billion a year, I’ll return to this). For 2021, we were looking at a further 125 million dollar reduction, 22% of revenue. In effect this meant that XXXX was shrinking from a 1.4 billion dollar beast to a billion dollar a year beast. Worth reflecting on this for a moment, especially given it was a 461 million year concern in 2009. Let’s think about this decade just past in this frame.
The crisis was immediately framed by the Chief Operations Officer in oiko-nomic terms: the phrasing included ‘we are living beyond our means’, ‘we need to tighten our belts’, and ‘going forward’ (the latter used like three times in the hour).
The counterfactuals were addressed: can’t we use savings, can’t we sell a few buildings? The response was that we can’t do the former because we don’t have any, and that we are selling some buildings, but you need a buyer, yada yada. The building in question is now on the market for something like 160 million dollars.
The talk then turned to specific austerity measures. First of all, the major thing was voluntary redundancies. But the exec pointed out that, most likely, this would not be enough. So by the end of the hard talk about finances, there was the spectre of restructures and forced redundancies. But nothing specific. You know, like a spectre.
On the ground, things are truly surreal. *This year*, HR introduced a new system for hiring casuals that had 3-4 layers to it. So it took a full month between me knowing my enrolments were robust, hiring for that, and having that person's labour available. This is my usual tutor who teaches with me every year. They are in the system, but every year they treat them like a stranger and they need their ID etc. So there was me explaining to students in week three why they still may not have a tutor for that week.... and in that week, I had to let them use my logins to teach classes. This is a breach of risk protocols that would get me in huge trouble if anyone knew, but in the absence of their being 'onboarded', they didn't have access to our systems. So it was the only way. And to be clear: new and systemic bottleneck *introduced* by HR this year. And 0 accountability for this when questioned, although it was a known systemic issue affecting dozens of courses and thousands of students’ tutorials, that people at School level called the biggest HR fuck up this decade.
The week after that, two weeks ago, I found out that my casual budget for next year is to be halved. Regardless of enrolments. Yet I predict enrolments will be roughly same (it’s a core course in the program, demand is mostly onshore and very robust). Right now I run a big core undergrad course, YY. This year, similar to last and the year before, it has 240 or so students. In 2018, we had four tutors, last year I had two, and if the above goes through, next year I’ll have one (note from 2022: I had one in 2021, and have two in 2022). So now I'm supposed to teach a course with 240 people and one tutor instead of two. And somehow change assessment regimes to make this workable.
I stress: enrolments will not have changed substantially, is my guess. And students will be paying the same price. Or substantially more, if Tehan gets his way (note from 2022: now paying substantially more; that legislation got through). But in the wash, you can see: 12% decline in revenue at systems level, and robust profitability down in my ‘lil corner. It's actually not that bad, not as bad as was predicted. We wouldn't have qualified for JobKeeper! It’s not a 30% drop.
So yeah, I am one of a team of nearly 30 staff who teach in a profitable corner of the university. Let’s cash this out.
Annual fees for students in programs like mine are currently about 27k a year. If it’s a Cth supported place, max a citizen student pays is 14,500 a year, or 1,812 per course. But remember that the government is paying another roughly 1800 here (NB: feel free to check current prices and add 2022 data in comments should you wish). So if you do the very rough sums on it, if I have 240 students in my course, we’re talking about students contributing 434k to the uni for the privilege of hearing me lecture, and the government doing about the same. But think about it. If my course has 240 students, it would bring in (very roughly) 840k. If you boil down my salary to an hourly rate, I’m about a 60 dollar an hour guy now. (If our VC works a 40 hour week he’s like a 750 dollar an hour guy... ) If I give 330 hours to this course, which is how the work spreads, my labour costs for this course are like 20k or so, bit less. Casuals, well, each of ‘em probably takes about 12k or so I’d suppose. But let’s say the labour cost on the course is 40-45k for this course, consider the gravy. Of course, staffing and their wages for all the kinds of admin and support, this is a massive factor, but it’s kind of ‘same again’ as academic wages, a bit less. Then you have to pay for cloudservers, IT, buildings, aircon, maintenance, depreciation, etc… it’s not cheap. But it’s not 840k.
The truth is that what were called ‘departments’ keep only around 25c in the dollar from student income: students who, as far as they know, are paying ‘for’ a course entirely staffed and run by that department (note from 2022: anecdotally, it’s now down to about 20c in the dollar). And to sharpen this point: we don't have control over our own budgets. So our courses and degree programs, which attract students based on our collective hard work and reputation, and the vocational outcomes we get for our students, are made to serve this thing called the university, which keeps 75c on the dollar. XXXX houses offices, libraries, emails, passwords, and tutorials etc, but ultimately the reason they need to be there is as the power of accreditation, the stamp on the piece of paper. Everything about our labour and reputation is as it is, independent of this. This is seldom considered and worth thinking through (consider a private college or a law firm of any size, just set up and practise). But the upshot, or upsuck, is that our programs are big and popular and this is a huge cause both of our work and jobs, for which I’m so grateful and so fortunate, and also our workload and status.
In this precise context, you would think that the prudent thing to do would be to maintain the quality of the program, not mess with student experience: don’t kill the golden goose. Leave it alone. Cut the triplication of stupid processes, like for the hiring of casuals I mentioned, which had a discernible effect on all of us for semester one, on stress, productivity, and student engagement in the crucial opening weeks. Our programs and courses are profitable! And sustainable; and defensible, both morally (we do get our good graduates jobs in their chosen fields while educating them about genuine matters of concern) and pragmatically (we have reverse engineered course content around what our colleagues in industry feed back to us as genuinely important to know and learn about). But most the money goes to uni and college level and gets trickled back down. And we have nearly no agency.
It’s in this ‘all of the above’ that my boss is currently experiencing enormous downward pressure to pinch pennies. They’re getting rude emails every day instructing them to squeeze efficiencies out of live spreadsheets. Austerity red in tooth and claw. I stress, these are live budgets, allocated resources. They’re being asked if casuals can be paid less, if further savings can be made. With the attrition due to covid and lockdown stress, higher this year, my course will go down to 150 people or so, I’d say (2021 note: it sat at around 200). You’re still looking at easily half a mill. coming into the uni. Do students see it in terms of red-carpet treatment and staff to student ratios or service? Do ongoing staff see it in terms of casual support and supporting a structurally meaningful ecology of casuals who have pathways into ongoing roles? Do casuals see it, at all? No they do not. The current university is better described a wealth transfer system set up by a Stalinesque neoliberal governance command economy that can’t see itself as such, and won’t not pay itself a fortune to keep screwing it up – precisely because they have extraordinary social distance and insulation from these matters. My advice: govern risk. Cos if you do, you’re protected from it.
At this point, it’s really worth asking: who are the exec, what’s their MO, what do they think about all this? The first thing you hear back is that there are two universities, like the city called London and the City of London. In the first one, described above, students pay more each year for a shittier service delivered by increasingly burnt out ongoing staff and increasingly precarious casuals. In the second, exec and college sit in endless committee meetings, looking at PowerPoints and Excel sheets. In these meetings, the strong feedback is that the pig is already slaughtered and on the table as ham. What I mean by that is that nothing is treated as live or contingent, everything is served cold and sliced and treated as a done deal, to be consumed. In this atmosphere, there are very strong informal norms about speaking out of turn or saying something other than the thing that everyone agrees is the Thing We’re Saying about X, Y or Z. So just like the TV show Utopia, in other words. The distinction being that the bureaucrats in these meetings are paid 3x, 5x, or 10x what equivalent APS public servants are paid. The salaries bear no relation to hours worked, or the danger or risk of the work involved. I’m sure some of them are lovely people, but structurally, they also have to be seen as parasitic – or at the very least, as mediators.
As for the top exec, it’s worth thinking about the background of the former VC and the pro vice etc. What’s his modus operandi? Open University, MOOCs, and Microsoft. CFO: ex Tesco, Pearson, Qantas, and Deloitte. Others: ex CSIRO: commercialisation of research, money from science, capitalisation of scitech; altruist entrepreneur, ex Riverina Dairy and Mutual Banks but also GE Money, Price Waterhouse, ‘change management’. Our research innovation guy? He was a microbiologist, but turned exec. His contribution to science? Breathalysers. Dep VC: what’s his thing, apart from being exec? It’s sports equipment materials, it’s tennis balls and cycling helmets, and distance education. Other still: it’s teaching and learning, as well as MBAs, the whole training and value orientation that created this expensive brittle structure. Of all the people on the board, only one, who is ex TAFE and Tasmanian, seems not of this mo(u)ld. If XXXX’ exec shares something: it’s corporate, it’s obsessed with capitalizable technology, and to get this gravy it’s about enacting subprime distance ed and the teaching and learning and change and capitalisation mumbo jumbo that embeds it as norm and ideology. So 2020 is not a crisis, it can also be seen as an opportunity for them, you know? So I do not trust these people: not ‘cos they’re evil. In fact because they are exactly the kind of linear, unimaginative, second-rate corporate types who have governed all our subprime corporations for the past 30 years, and moreover have been enthusiastically in favour of all the things that – taking an empirical look over the past four decades – have actually, actively making universities shittier, and less like universities.
In one sense this doesn’t matter if you’ve got a great niche where you can just get on with your courses and programs and getting your students jobs. Ours is just such a niche and it’s an aspect of the trad XXXX thing that I think is totally defensible and ordinary. I’m also a very fortunate individual in the machine.
In the midst of this we have three tears/tiers among the academics.
First of all, it’s people like me, who are level C and above, but especially level D and E. Our salaries are plump, let’s be honest, and we also get crazy good superannuation, 17% a year *on top* of the salary. This is the first time in my life I’ve earned good money, and it’s amazing. But also: no one needs to be paid as much as even me, and what made the jump into middle class life in gentrified Melbourne was getting to about 100k (latter in no small measure cos housing is so expensive, cos of the same reward structure and system). It’s diminishing returns and increasing Schwartz Media subscriptions and craft beer from then on. It’s providing for your kids and retirement, but it’s also putting Dura Ace on your road bike, or maybe putting Dura Ace on your carbon bike and then Campagnolo Record on your steel bike. Guilty!
Above me, a lot of the older profs, full profs, and the research academics, they seem very interpellated by the slippery pole of career and the strong mirror of ego, justified by a base meritocracy ideology – and *fully* buy In to their entitlements. There is this weird idea that somehow they’re worth it or they earn it, or that research pays for itself and isn’t, for the most part, built off student tuition and the labour of a largely sessionalised precarious workforce. I’ve encountered this insulated mindset and its moral indifference to its enabling conditions so often. There’s also chronic self-involvement in career path, especially promotion rounds (huge paperwork), as well as grant writing and international travel. 98% of it does not advance knowledge, and through its investment in long haul travel as mark of networking, international collabs and success, is actively causing climate change. It’s indefensible but it’s what people have been taught to want/is the reward for the hard work of knifing colleagues and treading on the heads of sessionals for 20 years. It’s funny ‘cos the people at this level who are our age, they’re usually neurotic about this. The 50 and 60 year olds, they don’t seem to care at all.
Then, sandwiched in between, are people who are ERC, post docs, levels A and B, who are hungry yet precarious, have PTSD from being structurally casual for a decade (guilty), and are kind of schizoid between buying into the above, or wanting it, based on some combo of fantasy, cruel optimism or just the ordinary wish to have a respectable existence and retirement – and rejecting the whole thing, wanting to burn it all, breaking down, joining NTEU, having nervous breakdowns, leaving and getting nice but frustrating public service jobs, etc…
Below this, the army of casuals/sessionals: most of these guys are Marxists and anarchists or nihilists or fatalists or blackpills now. So, so many of them are burning out and leaving the field. I do not blame them at all.
I split this into three – Fitzroy North inherited terrace, Coburg mortgage, and Depreston share house – because of the difficulty, the near impossibility, of anything like solidarity between these various segments within the academic classes. Their lives and interests are so different… there’s some kind of horrendous intergenerational vandalism that has been enacted here, the whole sector is so scraped out, and it’s acted out by the different strata of academics. And the majority of people who switch strata become the thing.
Then, interceding in all this, our union. So frustrating. On the one hand, Leninists and Trots and just the usual Socialist Alliance/Judean People’s Front cookery. On the other, the weird soft left almost neoliberal social democracy of the Labor kinds, who have this very Gillard idea of EAs and soft strikes and negotiation (many of them are also climbing Labor ladder, is the vibe I get). On reply all email, between ongoing colleauges who are NTEU members, there’s hot rhetoric and tough talk, but in meetings and with people I’ve spoken to where decisions are made (or deferred upward to where they’re made), very little analysis with anything like the contemporary university’s size/shape/professed values and goals. And behind it all, there’s often unreasoned or poorly reasoned capitulation to the exec’s framing of problems, or resignation toward its solutions.
I wanna stress there are so many good people in all these different spaces, but the overall institutional picture – and this is true right across the sector – is busted and surreal. Last week I learned that my casuals had not even been paid. There was some systems-level issue with the payroll/HR system and we had no agency and no explanation from anyone. You send an email to the person you know or hope is the good person (in payroll or HR etc) and cross your fingers and wait.
Then I come home from work and my eyes and brain is burning from Zoom lessons all day. But the students are still great, and the material is still great, my teaching is the best it’s ever been and our programs get our best graduates jobs, jobs they like. For me, I can provide for my family in a way I never could before, which stressed me out when my first child was born, a lot. But it’s still an entropic picture, full of needless stupidity and cruelty, and it won’t be ironed out soon, or resolved in our favour, I think.
Last week I got the following robo email from RMIT, which sums up their whole approach. Luckily I’m ongoing, so I have leave FFS, so I’m taking some, to give respite to my partner and the family.
This is a reminder that you currently have excess annual leave or long service leave.
At RMIT, excess leave is considered to be more than 5 weeks of annual leave or more than 18 weeks of long service leave. Please note, you will continue to receive this notification whilst you have excess leave balance/s.
If you have excess Long Service Leave and you have been directed by the University to take this leave in the last 2 years a further direction cannot be given within 2 years of the end of this period of leave.
Not taking accrued leave can have negative impacts on your wellbeing*. Please take some time now to plan your leave and discuss this with your line manager.
*recall the context which is less obvious with the passing of time: we were living under lockdowns, and teaching online, and couldn’t take leave, and even if we did/could, would still have been homeschooling
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