As Atrocities at Our Universities Mount New Forms of Struggle are Needed to Restore the Autonomous University

Almost daily one hears of an account of an atrocity conducted by university management at our increasingly corporatised universities.

The Guardian today writes of the case of Dr Paul Frijters at the University of Queensland. It would appear that the UQ chancellery acted contrary to the University of Queensland’s own internal procedures.

What lies at the core of this, and other cases, are matters of raw power.

An economics professor who was pursued unfairly for misconduct over a study of racism in Brisbane bus drivers has said his case highlighted the unchecked power of university hierarchies to punish academics “for research they don’t like”.

Paul Frijters, who was demoted by the University of Queensland and the research suppressed in a disciplinary process ruled invalid by the Fair Work Commission, has called for legal changes to give academics greater workplace protection.

Frijters furthermore is cited as stating;

Frijters told Guardian Australia he was “very happy that my name is cleared but I doubt if the UQ hierarchy would let it lie.”

He suggested political intervention was the only remedy to the unchecked power of university hierarchies to punish researchers through endless misconduct investigations, even on trivial grounds

What Frijters states here is correct, although it ought to be explored further. By political intervention we should mean not just petitioning those whose policies have created the corporate university, but industrial and political action on our campuses, including acts of civil disobedience such as occupations and extended sit down strikes, conducted with a view to restoring self-management at our universities.

So long as power is centralised in the hands of corporate management on campus atrocities such as this shall continue. The for profit corporation is an amoral and thoroughly tyrannical institution. From this fact all else follows.

We need acts of civil disobedience of such frequency and such scale that the corporate university becomes ungovernable. We did this before. We can do it again.

New modes of political and industrial action are required for both major political parties are committed to continuing the attack on the public university.

The recent announcement by the increasingly misnamed Australian Labor Party that, should it attain office following the July 2 federal election, it will institute more cuts to higher education spending demonstrates that both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party are committed to continuing the neoliberal attack on the public university.

The Liberal Party, naturally, will conduct this assault with greater depth. Cutting funding shall expose our universities ever more to market dynamics, which in turn will ensure that the power of corporate management at our campuses will be further entrenched. That is a natural, well known, consequence of exposing the university to the market.

The case of Labor is interesting, for the announcement of the planned cuts, in addition to social welfare spending cuts, was couched within a neoliberal policy framework that has Labor, to appease Wall Street credit rating agencies, determined to restore the budget to surplus as quickly as possible.

Both major political parties remain committed to neoliberal fiscal policy. That means the attack on the public university will continue indefinitely. Nothing better shows all those committed to the idea of the autonomous public university that traditional political and industrial responses to the neoliberal attack on the university have failed. The time has come for new approaches and new structures of struggle.

The enlightenment ideal of education and inquiry takes on a particular institutional form, that being the autonomous public university. This university ought to be an association or federation of self-managed and self-governed departments and faculties. The administration building would do little more than administer; it would not manage nor would it govern. The university ought to be a self governing community of scholars, teachers, students, and general staff.

Traditional unionism by its very nature cannot be emancipatory in this sense. As the university becomes increasingly corporatised so its workforce becomes increasingly proletarianised. Traditional approaches to unionism, as exhibited currently by the National Tertiary Education Union, has an increasingly proletarinised workforce, or better still its paid representatives, engaged in bargaining with central corporate management, within the broader neoliberal industrial relations framework, with a view to pressuring management to becoming more benevolent autocrats.

The university, however, should be a place of self-management and self-governance. If that is what the university becomes then there exists no place for traditional unionism within its walls. Perversely, those committed to traditional unionism on campus have an institutional stake in the further existence of the corporate university.

It thereby follows that restoring the autonomous self-managed university requires forms of industrial emancipatory unionism that seeks to have the university workforce transcend its proletarian status. Sit down strikes and student-staff occupations would not be conducted with a view to having management become more benevolent autocrats.

Their very purpose would be to take power away from those who have no right to possess it let alone wield it.

2 Comments

  1. The students who demand unions for themselves are elitists who deny the right of working people in factories to have unions. It is a category mistake to think that being a student is a job. Having students on strike is the same as having patients in a hospital on strike because they do not like the taste of medicine. The answer is shut down all colleges.

    • The first comment is plainly false. Students have rights, so it is perfectly legitimate for them to protect those rights and advance their interests within the institutional framework in which they have a stake. That can be in a union, a guild, an association or whatever the case may be. The same applies to patients in a hospital.

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