Today I signed a petition calling for a boycott of international academic conferences held in the US. The boycott has been organized in response to President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban entry to the US by Muslims from seven selected countries. The boycott currently has over 5,500 signatures. I also signed another petition imploring Australian Universities to explicitly denounce Trump’s polices as well as to support international students by funding scholarships for students from countries affected by the ban.
I am an American citizen by birth, and a naturalized Australian citizen. So it’s disorienting to say the least to be boycotting conferences in my home country. Detractors of boycotts point to the collateral harm they sometimes inflict on those whom we are intending to help. Yet the preservation of American democracy—not to mention our collective responsibility as global citizens to oppose all forms of xenophobia—outweighs whatever temporary inconveniences American universities might incur if the call for a boycott receives widespread support. As one American academic on my Facebook feed said today: “Boycott me, please!”
After seven months of negotiations with the NTEU, Murdoch University took the unprecedented step on December 9th of applying to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the University.
This marks the first time an Australian university has sought to terminate an agreement. It follows in the footsteps of Griffin Coal, whose successful application to the FWC to terminate the union agreement has substantially reduced employee wages. Apparently, Murdoch management has determined that its staff belong on Santa’s naughty list. Is it just a coincidence, or has Murdoch teamed up with Griffin to deliver university staff a great big “lump of coal” just in time for Christmas?
A bushwalker found his body at the bottom of Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains in early August. The previous day he’d caught the train from Summer Hill where he lived and travelled to Blackheath. CCTV camera footage showed him with the bicycle and backpack that the police later found locked up at the top of the valley. John Dalton – the ‘unknown scholar’ – philosopher, contrarian, a member of the academic precariat had taken his own life.
It was a solitary death: no living relatives, no partner, no will or suicide note. The legal process was complicated and a small group of friends dealt with police, coroner and funeral arrangements. It seems that few people were very close to him in the last months and that he confided little to anyone about his state of mind.
But we know enough to tell his story – and that unemployment was part of it. In his mid forties, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy fifteen years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.
In trawling through the Times Higher Education Supplement rankings list published recently, I found that of the ten universities in the English-speaking world with the highest student-staff ratios, seven are Australian. This suggests that recruitment has not kept pace with the growth in student numbers in the era of the ‘massification’ of higher education.
Indeed if one looks only at universities in Australia and the UK universities, nine of the ten highest student/staff ratios are Australian universities. Only the Open University, with its mass distance-learning model, makes the list, despite the fact that Britain has more than double the number of universities. The same ratio applies when measuring overall student numbers. Again only the Open University makes the top ten. While numerous Australian universities enrol more than thirty thousand full-time equivalent students in the UK only Nottingham and Open Universities do so.
Sydney University’s choice to award an honorary doctorate to John Howard is a decision to celebrate racism, bigotry and militarism. The award is unjustifiable in an institution claiming to serve the public good that says it is committed to rigorous standards of analysis and deliberation.
Along with many of our colleagues, we are appalled by the actions of the University Senate in making this award. That is why we are boycotting the graduation ceremony on Friday at which the doctorate will be conferred, and joining staff and students outside the University’s Great Hall in protest.
The students currently occupying the Sydney College of the Arts have every reason, and also every right, to assert their physical presence there. Art students belong in an art school. The occupation furthers their demand not to be deprived of what they were promised when they enrolled: a genuine, studio-based arts education. It also affirms a principle for which, apparently, neither Sydney University’s main management, nor the Art School, feels the slightest responsibility: the centrality of the arts, and therefore of arts education, to a healthy community.
SCA students should be supported by everyone who thinks that universities must be more than business schools. Nothing in Sydney University’s much touted commitment to ‘leadership’ or ‘community engagement’, it seems, stands in the way of it gutting a major component of NSW’s arts infrastructure. Yet Sydney has just spent $180m on the palatial new Abercrombie Building, described as ‘a key milestone on our journey to becoming one of the world’s leading business schools’.
Why is a world-leading MBA programme a more urgent ambition than a world-leading arts one? Unfortunately, it’s in no way too simplistic to conclude that it’s because the arts don’t appeal much to the finance, fossil-fuel, and gambling executives who control the university’s fortunes (see the section ‘the corporates on Senate’ in the NTEU’s 2015 Counter-Report on Sydney University). This interest group recently tightened its stranglehold over university decisions when democratic representation on the Senate was slashed.
His plenary address was full of the spiky political intellect we were familiar with from his writing. And so the conference organisers, of which I was one, were glad he’d made the journey from New York. I’d arranged to have lunch with him after his talk but a couple of the research mandarins intercepted him and took him off to eat somewhere fancy on their corporate cards.
Later in the afternoon he sought me out and told what had happened. They’d offered him a lucrative professorship and he was gobsmacked, but also flattered and interested, despite the fact that this would mean migrating to Australia with his partner and children. ‘But they gave me the hard sell. Now I want to hear from someone who’s not a manager. So tell me, what’s it’s like to work here?’