No Concessions: Australian tertiary education workers fight back

By Ani White, NTEU member and casual tutor.

In Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), my union, a rank and file rebellion is challenging officials’ defeatist response to the COVID-19 crisis. This piece will begin by outlining the background situation, before outlining the No Concessions campaign led by members.

Many university workers are not covered by JobKeeper, a payment for businesses significantly affected by COVID-19. The NTEU has therefore campaigned for JobKeeper, and full Federal funding. Over this period casuals have been sacked en masse, including 200 staff at my university RMIT. Universities are also seeking to implement a pay freeze, and to restructure Enterprise Bargaining Agreements.

However, the NTEU National Executive has been drawn into a managerial logic of helping balance the books, and a defeatist view of the crisis. A common idea, expressed both by the National Executive and those academics who support them, is that a sacrifice in pay is needed to protect job security. There is a liberal notion here of solidarity as self-sacrifice by privileged academics, rather than solidarity as a rising tide lifting all ships. Additionally, as highlighted by Kaye Broadbent in the Campus Morning Mail:

[N]ot everyone in the university sector is a highly paid academic. Universities are kept afloat by thousands of casual academics, fixed term research academics and casual and contract professional staff.

For the insecurely employed and low paid staff employed in universities reducing pay by any amount will create hardship – our rent and bills still need to be paid. For many university workers, their income is the only one in the household – especially since the crisis hit. And there’s no guarantee even with a pay cut that one more person will keep their job as a result.

Although negotiations are being conducted in secret, union militants have released information about the National Executive’s plans. According to an open letter by Katie Wood, a unionist at University of Melbourne:

On April 3, the National Executive of the NTEU unanimously approved a framework of negotiations that included the possibility of “general reductions in Agreement rates”. NTEU members were unaware of this decision until a Guardian article, published on April 17. Despite various denials from senior leadership that a reduction in rates is under discussion, a survey circulated in some branches asks members if they would be willing to take a reduction in hourly rates of up to 10%”

A document prepared for [the 25th of April’s] briefing of the NTEU National Council… states that the aim of the [National Executive] strategy is to secure “a strong Union role in managing the introduction of any cost saving measures” (emphasis mine).

In a more recent article for Red Flag, after the unconstitutional National Council meeting of April 25th, Wood reported the following:

This week, a hastily called national council “briefing” was rebadged as a “meeting of national councillors” to ram through a vote backing the national executive’s strategy of collaborating with management. The meeting approved the national executive’s motion by a vote of 89 to 13. That’s been touted as a vote of confidence in the strategy, but it has no standing in the union’s official rules – there was no procedure to propose motions beforehand, amendments were explicitly ruled out and procedural motions were repeatedly ignored.

The No Concessions campaign began with a motion censuring the National Executive, passed on April 12th at a University of Sydney members’ meeting, by 117 votes to 2. Supporting motions have been passed at members’ meetings across the country. Over 800 members, including myself, signed a statement calling for no concessions by the NTEU National Executive.

Union meetings on Zoom have attracted hundreds of members. However, union officials often run these more like one-way seminars than democratic meetings. The managerial tone became apparent to me personally at a snap ‘rally’ of the Victorian NTEU, just before the No Concessions campaign kicked off: officials claimed that the state government was sympathetic, and members had no opportunity to speak. Members have used the chat function to challenge the official line, alongside establishing independent channels for communication between rank and file members.

After motions and statements being passed in various places, core activists are itching to translate this into action. Strikes are illegal outside of collective bargaining, with a risk of significant fines. However, refusal of unpaid work is under discussion as an industrial tactic. Alongside enforcing the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, this would double as a statement of solidarity with casuals who should be performing that work – a vastly preferable tactic to trading wage freezes for job security.

This week RMIT Casuals, my own section, passed a motion calling on staff to refuse unpaid work. Members are also campaigning for a National Day of Action on the 21st of May.

Education and Capitalism: Behind the Massey-McDonald’s partnership

Morgan Welch

Massey University has formed a partnership with McDonalds Restaurants that will allow a number of McDonald’s store managers to cross-credit their prior learning towards an undergraduate business degree. An in-house course run for McDonalds by an external provider, Service HQ, provides managerial staff with the National Diploma in Hospitality, a New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) accredited qualification.

The head of Massey’s College of Business, Professor Ted Zorn, told the New Zealand Herald “We have gone in to McDonald’s and looked at what they are doing…We assessed the content [of the in house training], and found there was a pretty good fit with some of our first-year papers.”

This agreement was initiated by McDonalds, who approached several tertiary institutions before selecting Massey, though director of teaching and learning for Massey’s College of Business, Shirley Carr, told Fairfax News that she hoped it was the first of many such arrangements with companies as part of the university’s drive to forge closer links with business.

The situation is telling when it comes to how education happens in what is sometimes referred to as late capitalist society.  The agreement has been decried by supporters of the humanities and the social sciences, seen as a further blow to the battered liberal arts education that has suffered cuts as funding for science, technology and trades education has increased. This publication aims to provide a critical analysis of society, and as such recognises the importance of the disciplines broadly defined as ‘the arts’.

However, placing the arts as in competition with other disciplines is not useful, given that any society, capitalist or post-capitalism, will require people with a diverse range of skills and knowledge- including even some of the ‘management’ skills Massey will teach McDonalds employees. A blended work and study model of education is actually something that has been advocated by Marxist educationists at various times in history, and has been a demand of the organised labour movement.

In addition to this, arguments that come from a defence-of-arts perspective can veer toward an ahistorical line that supposes a past where education in those disciplines was provided widely and comprehensively, this has never actually been the case, and education serving the interests of the employing class is nothing new.

Education and early capitalism

When capitalism emerged in the United Kingdom it grew to become the dominant economic system through mass production, which divided the production of goods into a series of small tasks, people concentrated in factories could be taught quickly the task they needed to perform. Mass production is much more efficient than individual production, and meant wealth could be created in great excess to that required to provide workers with the means of subsistence, which was paid in wages.

At the time of the industrial revolution in Britain people had little formal education, which was not required for the new factory jobs. Primary education for children was provided by churches with the support of charity, and some public funding from the 1830s. Primary education was not compulsory until 1870.

Secondary education throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century consisted of grammar schools; academic schools covered by student fees that prepared students for university, and the new tax-funded technical schools, providing students with the education required for new jobs that had been created by industrialisation, but required more skills than production line factory labour.

Universities at this time remained elite institutions, but the wealth created by capitalism meant a small proportion of the population could be engaged in study and research, this is the reason the nineteenth century is also associated with great advancement in science as well as industry. The social sciences- economics, sociology, anthropology- also emerged at this time.

The British model of education was spread to the colonies, including New Zealand, and the two countries followed a similar path, both making secondary education universal in 1944. Universal secondary education had been a demand of the labour movement and in the New Zealand context was among the reforms of the first Labour government. Of course this was not as comprehensive as secondary education today and many students left at sixteen or even younger.

The post war boom

In the economic boom following world war two a substantial amount of society’s wealth was available, via high taxation on the rich, for higher education and research. In the USA in particular, this meant the huge financial support for science and engineering which laid the foundation for the space programme and the internet. Money was also available for the arts, and when popular movements pushed for new disciplines such a woman’s studies (gender studies) and ethnic studies programs, these could be provided.

Tertiary education in New Zealand was free, and a prosperous economy meant students could choose their field of study with little concern about the lack of career options it provided, or fear of poorer economic wellbeing in the future compared to studying an alternative. It’s important to note however that the mid twentieth century wasn’t a golden age of higher learning, today a third of New Zealanders aged 55 to 64 have a tertiary qualification compared to almost half for New Zealanders aged 25 to 35. Secondary school examinations at this time were designed to fail half of the students taking them, regardless of ability, so university education was not an option for many.


The post war economic boom came to an end in the 1970s; in the decade following the election of the infamous fourth Labour government in 1984 changes to what was provided by the state were made across the board, including in education. In 1992 (under a National government elected the previous year) tertiary education was commoditised to an extent with the introduction of user pays. The state would still fund each student to study, but the student would pay a proportion of the costs themselves.

With “user pays”, education became an individual rather than a social responsibility. In line with the ideology of individualism that accompanied neoliberal economic reforms, students became consumers of education in a marketplace. When secondary examinations changed to the modern system of NCEA, which ended the arbitrary process of failing perfectly capable students, those who studied a discipline that didn’t lead to a prosperous career (along with those who choose not to study at all) were seen as making a poor choice, and ultimately responsible for further low wages or unemployment.

The growth of some disciplines and decline in others is not entirely the result of students (incredibly restricted) choice. The capitalist class is incredibly influential in what kind of education the state funds, when politicians talk of matching education to the needs of ‘business’ ‘the market’ or ‘the economy’ what is literally meant is using public money to educate workers to a level required to perform today’s jobs. “Success in education is essential to the Government’s goal of building a productive and competitive economy.” Reads the State Services Commission website, “It also helps New Zealanders develop the skills needed to reach their full potential and contribute to the economy and society.” Far from mere rhetoric, both these statements are accurate.

Education today

As manufacturing jobs continue to move overseas and other low skilled jobs are automated, the New Zealand working class of the future will need to be more highly skilled than previous generations. This is why the current government has put emphasis on increasing the number of 18 year olds with NCEA Level 2, and the number of 25 year olds with a level 4 qualification, as well as from 2014 providing all level 1 and 2 courses to under 25 year olds for free- this is, completely state funded, with not payment from students as individuals.

To oppose the expansion of tertiary education for the working class would be misguided, while the major beneficiaries is the capitalist class, a worker also benefits from increased education. Universal tertiary education (though unlikely to be free education under capitalism) is the direction New Zealand is heading in, and the form that education takes is likely to be different than tertiary education has been up until now.

As mentioned previously, the blended model of work and study that McDonalds managers will be undertaking is not dissimilar than models advocated by Marxist thinkers on education, and practised in the first decades of the Soviet Union. Educational ideas oppositional to capitalism can become absorbed into it – this has happened many times before- though this doesn’t mean they suddenly become bad ideas.

There are serious shortcomings with the Massey-McDonalds scheme, the only ones with access to degree level education subsided by McDonalds will be managers. In practice managing operations and managing people are not separate. While skills such as providing training and overseeing payroll are essential in any workplace, manager’s authority over workers means they can often join the wrong side of industrial disputes -like the recent McStrike campaign- education provision could mean more managers seeing their interests with those of the corporation rather than the rest of the work force.

McDonalds likes to play up the fact that most of their management -even at a senior level- have risen up from the shop floor, but the hierarchical structure of the business means the vast majority of workers will not advance to that level and gain the opportunities that come with it. McDonalds provides sub degree education (with NZQA accredited hospitality qualifications) to all long serving employees, though this is only the first step, not a complete pathway to a hospitality career.

Fundamentally, training schemes are not something to oppose. The New Zealand Nurses Organisation and the Service and Food Workers Union have long advocated for an educational pathway for aged care workers to become qualified nurses (arguably this is far more socially beneficial than training restaurant managers) and there are many other industries where this model could be applied. However, skills-based education must not be tied to corporate demands.

Where does this leave the arts?

Student groups and education unions have had limited success in defensive campaigns to keep arts education.  While an arts education is valuable, it does not necessarily have to be a thing apart from work or other learning. Arts subjects could be provided alongside science and/or practical training. With more people gaining tertiary education, including through mixed work-study models, perhaps the next step is for the various stakeholders in education; students, educators, unions-  to advocate for a more comprehensive tertiary education, combining technical and scientific subjects with social science and humanities.

Student Debt: Reinforcing the Logic of Capitalism

Thomas Inwood, Fightback.

Under liberal capitalist democracy the University is lauded as a cultural beacon, where the new generation of leaders and entrepreneurs develop themselves and explore new horizons. The reality of university life is one dominated by the corporate hierarchical model and ever present “market forces”.

Student debt in Aotearoa/NZ is over $10 billion dollars. The average student debt as calculated in 2007 was $28,000, a 54% rise since 2004. While the student loan scheme allows for interest free loans for tertiary study, debt itself controls the function of the university as well as the decisions of students.

A student taking on the average debt of $28,000 will be required to make compulsory repayments once they earn over a certain threshold (approximately $19,000 per annum). This effectively functions as an additional 12% tax on the income of post tertiary workers. With less and less job opportunities, many undergraduates are leaving university without easily finding employment. While students’ ability to study is largely supported by the working class, many students after attaining their degree will enter the working class themselves rather than high level positions in the ruling class.

The material reality of a large student debt can therefore act as a coercive force, providing an incentive to study those fields which are believed to have the most lucrative career option. The mythos of higher education has always been one of self-improvement; however due to this material reality of debt, many students will instead pursue study which they lack interest in and may not be particularly skilled at to begin with. In essence, accepting the logic to compete for jobs that pay well weakens the ability for the student to succeed at all.

This trend is reinforced constantly, with the University of Canterbury in a permanent state of ‘restructuring’. This restructuring has resulted in Gender Studies, Religious Studies, American Studies, and most languages either being completely cut or removed as options for a major. The struggle to resist these changes has not been successful, aside from Theatre and Film Studies being consistently threatened with the axe. Even more concerning is the apparent motivations for these cuts which do not always have an economic incentive. Universities function as a business, have shareholders etc. who are the only people the University is truly accountable to. However, many of the subjects being integrated or eliminated are not drains on university resources. There is an ideological motive for stripping back all subjects deemed ‘unnecessary’ by capitalism and the ruling class. Those areas which are not useful for capitalism are neglected.

Universities largely maintain ideological hegemony, or the system of ideas that justify capitalist rule. Economics degrees spend no time at all on one of the most comprehensive studies of capitalism itself, Marx’s Capital.

Students of anthropology, sociology, philosophy and other supposedly critical subjects will find themselves largely focusing on the hegemonic ideas of the time – those that serve the ruling class. Political Science degrees merely reinforce capitalism and liberal democracy as the best system, with horizons limited to different regimes of regulation.

Even if some fields of critical work support counter-hegemony in theory, any transformative practice will be sharply opposed by management. Transformation of universities therefore requires developing radical student and staff organizations that can confront management.

Eroding the myth around the function of tertiary education brings to light an insight the Left has seen for well over a century – that for all the talk of individual choice and self-improvement, capitalism actually fails to deliver any of those things to all but the elite. More than that, capitalism is unable to provide for the interests and needs of all because it requires the subjugation of the majority in order for the minority to have all of their needs and interests tended to. Even within the bastion of liberal “progressive” thinking, the Academy, the individual loses out to capitalism.

At first glance it may appear that student debt is the problem, and if university was free and accessible to all we would have more freedom to pursue our interests. This ignores the fact that the university still exists as an institution within a capitalist economy. If it cannot make money, it will need to be funded through the state via taxation – a disproportionate amount always being taken from working class people. It is only through systematic change that education can become something valuable. With an economy based on social need rather than profit, it will become clear that the ability and facilities for people to pursue their interests are essential for an egalitarian society within the realm of social need. Moreover, the entire organization of the university must be rebuilt under the direct control of students, working with educators, rather than dictated by a managing board whose primary interests are making money.

Any struggle for zero fees should also seek the transformation of universities as a whole. Radical democratic control by students and staff, rather than by bureaucratic top-down control in pursuit of profit, would allow for a huge expansion of personal freedom.

Teachers and public education under attack


Rachel Broad, Fightback Hamilton branch, Aotearoa/NZ. Originally published by the Socialist Party of Australia.

Teachers in  New Zealand are facing a perfect storm. For the time being they have faced down government attempts to increase class sizes but have also had to contend with school closures and mergers in Christchurch and a move to introduce charter schools.

At the same time large numbers of teachers are going without pay or getting paid incorrectly thanks to the failure of their national payroll system. This is creating huge amounts of stress. Tensions are on the increase between teachers and the government, and the public are increasingly siding with the teachers.

Government’s failed attempt to increase class sizes

In mid 2012 the Ministry of Education attempted to introduce a new policy that would change teacher-student funding ratios in schools and would have increased class sizes and created job losses. Some school principals said that they would have to cut up to three jobs in each school if the policy was carried out. The student-to-teacher ratio would have been standardised at 27.5 students per teacher for year 2 to year 10 classes.

The policy was deeply unpopular. Some polls showed up to 89% of people in opposition to the policy. Teachers and many members of the public rallied against the proposed changes.

The government tried to carry out the changes within both primary and secondary schools at the same time. Usually, using divide and rule tactics, the government has attacked the primary and secondary sectors separately. By attacking both sectors at the same time the government had bitten off more than they could chew and were forced to back down.

These events were the beginning of a sharp decline for Hekia Parata, the Minister of Education and puppet for the government’s education plan. Parata was paraded by the ruling National Party as a high-flying Maori MP and was quickly promoted to cabinet.

During one teachers’ meeting about class sizes where Parata was under constant fire she condescendingly lectured teachers by telling them that one of the main problems with the education system was not underfunding but that many teachers don’t pronounce Maori and Pacific Island children’s names correctly. Without hesitation this divisiveness was roundly rejected by broad layers from the Maori and Pacific Island communities. Parata is now deeply unpopular. [Read more…]

Hundreds turn out against Christchurch School closures

Rally against school closuresWhile Christchurch primary school teachers had planned to take industrial action on February 19th this was called off just a few days prior. Under the Employment Relations Act strikes outside of bargaining are outlawed, had this strike taken place it would have been the first one to challenge the anti-strike laws.

In the end however, action took the form of a rally outside of school hours. Over a 1500 people gathered at the CBS arena in Addington, the number were made of up of teachers, parents, children and other supporters include from a number of other unions.

After a number of short speeches attendees voted on a motion of no confidence in Hekia Parata’s record as Education Minister. That motion was then delivered to the ministry of education following a lively march which included chants of “when Christchurch schools are under attack, stand up! Fight back!” and “Hek no- she must go!”

A Fairfax poll released the day after the education rally showed that 71% of people in Canterbury thought Parata should be stripped of the education portfolio. In addition to the “shake up” in Christchurch (seven schools to be closed and 12 to be merged) Parata has presided over the ongoing problems with Novapay and last year attempted to increase class sizes being backing down.

Of course, handing the education portfolio to another minister would not fix the problems faced in Christchurch any more than stripping Paula Bennett of the welfare policy would stop the government’s insidious welfare reforms. Government policy appears to be what has been termed “disaster capitalism” using a natural disaster as an excuse to restructure education in the city, both though the current closures and later through the imposition of charter schools.

The government’s plans can be defeated if teachers and supporters take militant action, particularly in the workplace.