ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Hi, I’m Tamson Pietsch and you’re listening to The New Social Contract. This is our third episode. And by now, you know that this is a podcast about imagining what a new social contract might look like between universities, their communities and the states.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So far, we’ve looked at the different shapes that social contract has taken across the 20th century. We’ve talked about the context of the crisis and how COVID-19, has exposed the already frayed nature of higher education policy in Australia.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And we’ve heard from some of the people who work and study in our institutions and what the disruption has meant for them. In today’s episode, we turn to the present. What does the COVID-19 crisis mean for universities now and over the next six to 12 months? There’s a lot that is uncertain from job losses to student recruitment to future university business models and the role higher education will play in a post COVID society.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: The consequences of the pandemic are still emerging, and it sometimes feels that it’s hard to find solid ground. People understandably want to get back to normal to release the pause button and resume life as they knew it. But I think we should be skeptical of talk of a return to normal.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: There can be no return to the assumptions of the past. Airlines have gone out of business. There is a huge new public deficit and unemployment has soared. The social settings of the post-COVID world will be different to those we’ve known. But the terms of those settings are not yet in place. That’s why there’s so much at stake. To help me today get a sense of where the cracks are emerging in Australian higher education and how different parts of the sector are responding,
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I’m speaking with Dr Alison Barnes, the President of the National Tertiary Education Union.
DR ALISON BARNES: COVID-19 hit higher education really early and really hard, and its effects will be felt for the next couple of years.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And I’m also speaking with Luke Sheehy from the Australian Technology Network of Universities, also known as ATN.
LUKE SHEEHY: We talk mostly with various ministers, Minister Tehan, Minister Andrews, the Prime Minister’s office, the Treasurer’s office, the Department of Education, Department of Industry, and also, of course, Home Affairs, with their links to the immigration system and international students. So we do a lot of work talking to them, and we’ve been doing that work since this crisis started to emerge.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Luke is the Executive Director of the ATN. It’s an umbrella body for the country’s four big technical universities, including UTS, which is my home institution, along with RMIT, University of South Australia and Curtin University. In different ways both Alison and Luke give us an insight into some of the lobbying efforts and negotiations being led by different parts of the sector. Things are moving very quickly in this space at the moment, so just a heads up that the interview with Alison and Luke took place in mid-May.
NEWS GRAB Journalist Ellen Fanning, presenting The Drum on the ABC, aired on May 13 2020: Are you going to take up the union’s offer, a 15 percent pay cut in return for security of employment and the catch is you’d have to take a pay cut too.
NEWS GRAB Kylie Walker, CEO of Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, on the ABC 7.30 Report, titled ‘Fears for the viability of Australia’s top universities without international students’: We are facing a very sudden drop in our capacity to keep pumping out the knowledge, to keep creating and disseminating and applying the knowledge. That is actually the key to getting us through the pandemic and to building our economy once it’s finished.
NEWS GRAB Victorian Minister for Higher Education Gayle Tierney on ABC Melbourne on May 20, 2020: The Federal government obviously is the responsible government for funding universities and they have provided some support, but clearly it isn’t enough.
NEWS GRAB Labor Senator Murray Watt at the Senate Select Committee for Covid 19 on May 19, 2020: Can you tell the committee how much of this 18 billion dollar relief package is actually funding.
NEWS GRABDeputy Secretary for the Department of Education Robert Heferen at the Senate Select Committee for Covid 19 on May 19, 2020: For the 18 billion it’s not.
NEWS GRAB Susan Goodwin: We need a UniKeeper plan now and for the future that includes guaranteeing university places. So no capping or deregulation of fees. And we need job security for all Higher Education workers.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: In early May, the NTEU announced a negotiated draft agreement with Universities called the National Job Protection Framework. It aims to save at least 12000 university jobs at risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: The flip side of this is the freezing of wages and temporary salary reductions of between five and 15 per cent for some staff. Universities as well as the NTEU are divided on the framework. Several institutions have announced they will not be signing up, and NTEU members are voting on whether they endorse the proposed terms. I spoke with Alison Bonds on the 14th of May, a day after its details were first announced.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Now, Alison, you have been warning for some time now that, you know, the equivalent of 30000 academic jobs could be at risk as the result of the shortfall in revenue, both from international students and COVID more broadly.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: What has been the impact of COVID-19 so far on higher education, jobs and conditions? How bad is it for universities?
DR ALISON BARNES: I don’t think higher education in this country has ever faced a crisis as deep and as great as COVID-19.
DR ALISON BARNES: So basically Australian universities have lost between about four and a half and five billion dollars in revenue or losing that much because of the drop in international student income.
DR ALISON BARNES: So this means that there are between 20000 and 21000 FTE jobs that are looking to be lost though in real job terms, that equates to about 30000. So that’s 30000 professional and general staff, academics who are likely to be standing in queues at Centrelink over the next six months to a year. So that figure is actually higher than industries like, you know, Virgin Airlines, which have been in the news lately for their huge job losses. And we’re not talking either about the casuals, you know, in gyms across our campuses that have lost work in the last sort of six weeks. So whereas the modelling for those predictions coming from. The NTEU did its own modelling and that figure came up with 20000. Universities Australia also did its own modelling and their figure was 21000.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: So that’s a really serious set of numbers and a sobering one. Your union has just reached an agreement to implement between five and 15 per cent salary cuts for permanent staff in exchange for wider guarantees of job security, which is a really radical step. Could you talk us through the thinking behind it?
DR ALISON BARNES: Look, it’s a really difficult decision to make, and there are no perfect options in a crisis of this magnitude. So the union has put, I suppose, income security, job security and fairness at the centre of a national response towards dealing with the problems that COVID-19 has presented for the sector.
DR ALISON BARNES: Before I talk a little bit further about the job, the protective framework might be worth me also talking about the action or I should say the inaction of our Federal Government. What’s been really extraordinary in this crisis is the government’s absolute failure to step in and help higher education. There’s been no lifeline, no adequate rescue package provided to the sector. Universities have been knocked out of Job Keeper on three separate occasions.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Okay, so the Federal Government has been continuing to rewrite the rules for the pandemic relief package to exclude universities. We saw on April 24 that the government ruled that unis had to count Commonwealth grant funding towards the revenue. And then on April 30, it was announced that they also had to count six months of revenue when calculating their projected downturn rather than the one to three months, as was the case for other institutions. And this means that no university qualifies for Job Keeper. What’s happening there?
DR ALISON BARNES: So each time they think that they’ve got a way in, they’ve been locked out, which is incredibly disturbing. The government released a package on Easter Sunday. But as we’ve said publicly at the time, it was kinda accounting tricks and smoke and mirrors. By and large, it was money that had already been accounted for. So it was it was as if the COVID crisis had never happened. So the government is completely, I suppose, been missing in action and has done nothing really to save a sector that is struggling. I’ve been really disturbed, as I think have most people across the sector by the Prime Minister’s comments a couple of weeks ago that international students who are suffering in this crisis could go home. I think given the sector’s reliance on international student income and the role that international students play into diversity, life, the vibrancy of our campuses, the attitude of our federal governments towards the wellbeing of international students is extraordinary. So they’re really left higher education and university staff out to dry. So by not stepping in to help universities, you get all of the problems of the university business model. You get the last decade of 10 billion dollars being ripped out of Australian universities and international student fee income being used to subsidise domestic teaching and research.
DR ALISON BARNES: We also operate in a sector where the levels of casual employment and precarity and insecurity are extraordinary.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Okay, then let’s talk about that. Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel has recently reported that many of the jobs at risk in universities will come from research and the brunt will be borne by women and those in their early careers. People who are often on short term contracts. Why is the university workforce so precarious?
DR ALISON BARNES: Over 50 percent of teaching at Australian universities is performed by people with no employment security. It’s not just academic staff who are increasingly precariously employed or insecurely employed, it’s our professional and general staff. It’s the people who work in our gymnasiums. So it’s a pretty bleak picture given the pivotal role that Australian universities play in, you know, educating people, reskilling our workforce if we move to a recession, to developing cures to diseases such as COVID-19, to you know developing new technologies. No, the absolutely vital role that Australian universities plays both our civil and our economic life. So the problem of insecure work is not just for those who perform it, but for the sector, it undermines some of the central tenets of a healthy, vibrant university system.
DR ALISON BARNES: We need to rethink this sector and what it looks like.
DR ALISON BARNES: We want things like securely employed staff. We want academic freedom.
DR ALISON BARNES: We want robust and healthy institutions where people learn not just skills, but where they learn important things like critical thinking.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Now, the Federal Government has excluded universities from access to the job cape scheme. It has guaranteed 18 billion dollars for domestic students. But that’s not new money and was already budgeted for. And then there is another bucket of funding that is conditional on running short courses in health services, teaching and IT. But this one hundred million dollars is earmarked to be shared with private providers, not just public universities. Alison, why do you think the Federal Government appears to have no appetite for helping universities when they’re in crisis?
DR ALISON BARNES: I suspect I should say the government is seeking to, I suppose, reset the sector or use COVID-19 to reset the sector. So I think I could only read the government’s actions as suggesting that they want a sector that is smaller and less vibrant. Our current government, you know, has a hostility to universities. They’re seen as bastions of Left-Wing thought and critical often of government policy. So I think that’s led to a starving of the sector of funds.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I wondered what Luke Sheehy had to say on this topic. As the Executive Director of the ATN, his job is to promote the work and interests of his member universities. Who was he talking to in government?
LUKE SHEEHY: So we’re working to advocate for funding certainty with the federal government and Minister Tehan in particular.
LUKE SHEEHY: We’re working to support international students and the international education sector through Minister Tehan, but also through the other ministers responsible, the Minister for Immigration and the Home Affairs Minister.
LUKE SHEEHY: And we’re working closely with the Treasurer and the Prime Minister’s office on advocating the role of universities in dealing with the COVID crisis, but also our role that will play in the recovery phase, and that is helping workers and helping with the skills the Australian economy will need, but also helping industry with moving from the hibernation phase back into a productive phase.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: I mean, do you think it’s fair to say that the federal government really isn’t prepared to support higher education in the way they are other industries at the moment?
LUKE SHEEHY: I think it’s still early days. I think it would be really disappointing, more than that it would be sad if the government, the Federal Government cast universities adrift and didn’t support us through this difficult time. As you know, in times of economic decline, there is a countercyclical nature and often a lot of people want to go back and study to get the skills they need to find secure work. And we’re working hard to ensure there’s lots of options for students in doing that. But I think the government also had a major challenge on its hands where it was looking at industries that were actually collapsing in front of them. And because universities and the higher education sector and other providers have been well run, often running surpluses and their financially sound institutions, and the major impact for international student fee revenue, which is a big part of our larger universities revenues, wasn’t going to hit until semester two, the government prioritized some other sectors in the short term.
DR ALISON BARNES: When COVID-19 first hit, what, about six weeks ago, we were enormously worried about the impact on casual staff. As COVID-19 has continued, the problem doesn’t just remain with casual employees, it remains without fixed term and continuing staff.
DR ALISON BARNES: And we can’t sit by and watch jobs go campus by campus, faculty by faculty, across the country.
DR ALISON BARNES: We need to intervene to save our campuses and to save as many jobs as we can.
DR ALISON BARNES: And the government is remiss in its failure to intervene to protect the sector, a sector that presumably has an absolutely vital role in not only educating students, but in reskilling the Australian workforce if we move into the recession or depression that it looks like we’re facing.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: That raises a question that’s really at the heart of this podcast, which is that notion of the social contract, right, which is a kind of relationship between governments which have been talking about universities and also the public. You’re making a case that government is not coming to the party here in a relationship that universities and the public are massively invested in. What should we as a public be demanding of our governments at the moment?
DR ALISON BARNES: We should be demanding as a sector and as the general public. We should be demanding that our government invest in public education, that it invest in our universities, you know that, so we are able to perform the teaching and the research needed to meet the challenges that will confront Australia over the coming years.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: While the Federal Government may not be coming to the rescue anytime soon, could there be a role for State Governments to play? I asked Luke Sheehy.
LUKE SHEEHY: I think for many years state governments saw universities as an important thing in their states, but not something that they had to pay particular attention to and that varied with different governments and different states. But what I’ve been really pleased about the last couple of months is the importance that they’ve seen of our universities and their various states and the role that they play in the economic and social development of their states and the importance of international education as well. So there’s been some really strong advocacy from New South Wales and South Australia in particular, as well as Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia at the national cabinet table, supporting international students and that work is continuing. So I’m really pleased and quite delighted that State Governments are advocating quite strongly for their universities.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Just aside from anything else, it is really fascinating to see the states returning to this face. Obviously, these universities are all set up under state legislation. They are mostly linked to state school curriculums. And although, of course, this national structure is for that. But it is perhaps taking up older threads in the relationship between universities and the public that it might be part of a new kind of relationship.
LUKE SHEEHY: So in the last decade, I’d say State Governments have really stepped up their engagement with the universities and international education sector. And you’ve seen them understand it as an integral part of the State Government work in developing the economy of their state. And I wouldn’t describe it as a return, I wouldn’t describe it as anything other than just an ongoing and continuing interest in the importance of our sector in the life of their states.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Perhaps Luke had the inside word because shortly after our interview took place, the Victorian Government was the first state to announce that it would supply a 350 million dollar relief package to the state’s 10 universities.
NEWS GRAB Victorian Minister for Higher Education Gayle Tierney on ABC Melbourne on May 20, 2020: The Victorian Government will set up a new fund. It will be called the Victorian Higher Education State Investment Fund. This fund will have 350 million dollars attached to it. The fund will be able to provide capital works, but not just capital works, research, applied research, research and industry partnerships that are so crucial as we work through our recovery from the pandemic. But not only that, what I’m really, really excited about is the new partnership that the State Government will have with Victorian universities. It’s a partnership that will align State Government priorities with the capabilities of Victorian universities.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: But this is no substitute for Federal Government support and clear policy direction. Neither will it save 30000 jobs.
DR ALISON BARNES: There are no perfect options in a crisis like COVID-19 presents to the sector. The union has fought very hard to put income security and security for our most vulnerable employees at the center of a national response. We can’t have campuses left behind. You know, we have to stand together to ensure that our livelihoods are protected and to protect our hard won conditions. So this is certainly not an easy decision for the union. It’s a very, very difficult decision, finding a way to kind of navigate a pandemic in the context of a government who seems willfully indifferent to the plight that the sector faces.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: You talk about a sector wide response there, but I think we’re seeing the sector fragment in lots of different ways. And some of your branches are not necessarily going to come with you on this. How has it been received at a branch level.
DR ALISON BARNES: Look by and large well, but, you know, we are a union that represents university. So, of course, there’s going to be debate. And not every branch may vote for it. You know, and that’s really up to individuals. We obviously would advocate for the position, but it’s ultimately members’ decision. But we also need to, I think, think as imaginatively as we can around how we might seek to save jobs in a context where the Federal Government is missing. But, you know, there are difficult decisions that go alongside that.
DR ALISON BARNES: In this framework we’ve tried very hard to protect employment conditions. Things like superannuation are protected. So even if you took a five per cent reduction in your pay, your superannuation and your leave would be protected. Casuals should not and will not and should never, ever be subjected to a reduction in their pay because of the insecure and precarious nature of their work. No framework guarantees that no employer across the sector will be stood down without pay. So we preserve a whole lot of things. Redundancies can only occur where a university can explicitly prove that there’s no work and this variation to an enterprise agreement is temporary or lasts for a year and then conditions revert to the status quo.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Could you give me a bit of insight into what that process of lobbying government on the one hand and negotiating with universities looks like? How has that worked?
DR ALISON BARNES: With great difficulty. And that’s why we kind of do it as a national union, because, you know, some branches are stronger than other brances or have more members. COVID-19 hasn’t hit our sector uniformly.
DR ALISON BARNES: Some institutions are much more impacted than others. If you’re at university which couldn’t demonstrate that it had a significant financial loss, then none of these measures would apply. Like, for example, UTS would probably never apply because it couldn’t demonstrate that it would suffer significant losses.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Well, what does a significant financial loss count? What’s the measure of that?
DR ALISON BARNES: Well, that goes to an independent body to be assessed. You know, so that you’ve to have independent assessment of that. Like I couldn’t do it, for example, because I’m not nor an accountant. I wouldn’t trust me to do it, but that’s why, you know, we’ve made it in different bodies to assess the financials of university and why universities need to do things like prove that they’ve cut non-staff costs. You know, that they’ve stopped building those buildings that are going up around campus, that they’ve cut Executive and Vice Chancellor remuneration packages. Like they have to have introduced a whole series of cost saving measures. And they have to demonstrate that they have, in fact, done so.
DR ALISON BARNES: So this agreement provides lots of protections for staff, but there are things in there which will obviously make staff across the sector think.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And it’s not just university workers who have a lot to think about right now. Universities, too, are being asked to deliver more short courses or micro credentials. We spoke about them in episode two of this podcast, and some universities are more enthusiastic about them than others. Luke, are your members in the ATN group taking up these opportunities in a way that perhaps other parts of the sector aren’t?
LUKE SHEEHY: We’re really supportive of these short courses. We think they’re a really good idea for a couple of reasons. They give workers who are impacted by COVID the opportunity to do six month courses that they can either retrain or up skill and get the skills they might need in order to go into new or emerging jobs in the economy. So that’s really good because it links workers with industry and universities are playing a role. ATN universities, it’s in our DNA. Most of our universities have been around for about a century and they’ve always worked closely with industry. Sometimes I’d describe us as the trading universities. But, you know, we’ve been established as working men’s colleges and working men’s institutes or institutes of technology ,and have always been linked in to a much closer relationship with work and training for work.
LUKE SHEEHY: I think the other that we’re really excited about with these short courses is the fact that it could lead to a another discussion about reform of higher education.
LUKE SHEEHY: So if we think about the disruption that we’ve seen in our economy over the last number of years, it’s rapid. Technology is changing the way we live and work.
LUKE SHEEHY: It’s changing that kind of skills that we need for work. And we increasingly are going to need rapid but small types of reskilling options. Giving students the opportunity to come back to university, they haven’t been for a while and get the skills they need. Or other students can take them before a bachelor degree as a pathway into university. So from an equity and participation angle, we really warmly support these. We support them because they help workers and they help industry in a time of economic crisis, and then they’ll help us in the recovery when we’ll have a higher skill base in our economy as the economy kicks back into growth. And then it’s going to provide a platform for further reform in tertiary education, where we might see the emergence of shorter micro credentials that help people get the skills they need for a lifetime of work.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: It was really interesting to hear Luke invoking this history of technical colleges in talking about the future of higher education. One of the critiques being leveled at the sector is that perhaps it is too big and that there’s an oversupply of courses or a lack of diversity. And some vice chancellors have been arguing for some time that the policy settings force universities to be too similar. I asked Luke if we were seeing a differentiation of the Australian higher education sector and what that differentiation might look like.
LUKE SHEEHY: I don’t accept the fact that all universities in Australia are exactly the same. We are different. We’re different in history, in communities and regions we serve. For us, all our members are inner city and they serve a huge range of students right across the state and right across the country and right across the world. But they do it with a different lens.
LUKE SHEEHY: They do it with a more innovative lens, with a more agile lens, sometimes with a more kind of youthful approach to these things, even though sometimes we are actually older than other institutions.
LUKE SHEEHY: I think there is a mischaracterization that every university in Australia is almost the same. It’s not, it’s not the same. And in terms of differentiation, ATN universities, we’ve never stood still.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Nothing feels like it’s standing still at the moment. But as much as everything feels uncertain, this also means that the future is open. I asked Alison Barnes what her vision is for higher education in Australia.
DR ALISON BARNES: I don’t think NTEU members view of what the sector would look like and the government’s view would necessarily always be in accord.
DR ALISON BARNES: We certainly wouldn’t be arguing for a smaller, less vibrant sector. We want things like securely employed staff. We want academic freedom.
DR ALISON BARNES: We want robust and healthy institutions, and we need encompassing research that is valuable. We need people to develop critical thinking skills. We don’t just need, you know, short courses in skill development. We need our students to be encouraged to develop those critical thinking skills.
DR ALISON BARNES: If we’re going to have a kind of flourishing and healthy democracy. We need campuses where staff have the security to not only meet their own social and economic needs, but also ensure that, you know, those cornerstones of Australian universities around academic freedom and critical inquiry are preserved, maintained and fostered and supported.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And Alison is clear about what her future will hold.
DR ALISON BARNES: We’re going to be campaigning, I think, over the next six to 18 months around precisely this question of what the sector looks like, because COVID-19 can’t be used as a Trojan horse to reshape the sector along smaller and less vibrant lines.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Luke, you were talking earlier about making the case to government about the value of what universities do, particularly in search of government support. But there is a sort of sense to, I think, more broadly in the wider community that there might even be a situation in that there might not be a lot of sympathy for the plight of universities. I mean, and it certainly seems that there has been an emphasis over the last 15 years that universities have told a story, which is a true story, about how investment in a university degree improves your salary. It gives you job opportunities. But the public benefit that we’re hearing emerge now has sort of dropped away. What work is going on amongst both the mission groups and perhaps at Universities Australia and among the Vice Chancellors? Is there a consolidated effort to think about how to describe the value of universities to the public?
LUKE SHEEHY: Yeah, I mean, that is an ongoing project. I think it’s something we really have to continue having that discussion with and getting better at telling that story.
LUKE SHEEHY: We have to get better at reminding Australians that thousands of people need university qualifications for jobs in our economy. You know, you walk down any street and you see a pharmacist or you see someone building a road or you walk past a nurse or a doctor or a teacher or a scientist in a laboratory. They’ve all gone to university. They’re all incredibly important to our economy. So that’s one point is the importance of universities in training people for the jobs that we have in our economy. That’s one part of it. I think the other part which you talked about, which I think is really important to ATN universities and brings us together as a network, is our commitment to social justice and our role as civil institutions, as anchor institutions. So our broader role than just, you know, producing graduates for the economy or the world economy or doing research. It’s about challenging preconceived ideas and challenging societal norms and providing new ideas. And sometimes, you know, we come against it in the political class because, you know, we are places of free speech and free expression. And, you know, that can be challenging to people from all sides of politics.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: What kind of universities do you think Australia needs for the 21st century?
LUKE SHEEHY: What I would say universities that are able to look at and understand what’s coming and what are the changes, what are the challenges and finding solutions for those and working with our communities, working with business and advocating with government and working with government to take those challenges head on and find solutions for it to deliver you know sustainable planet.
LUKE SHEEHY: Energy Solutions, making sure that people have healthy and safe lives, access to jobs and secure work. Universities that are agile and embrace disruption and change that are linked to the industry.
LUKE SHEEHY: They’re in the kind of Zeitgeist, so to speak. Universities that understand change and embrace change are going to be right at the forefront of what we need.
LUKE SHEEHY: ATN universities hold all of those attributes as core values. So I think they’re really well-placed.
LUKE SHEEHY: And so I think that they’re integral to finding solutions and building a prosperous and sustainable society.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: In the midst of these uncertainties, we can see various entities jostling with each other in an attempt to understand what’s going on and position those they represent to survive the present and flourish in the years to come. The arguments they are making are all political in that they are shaped by different priorities, by different interests and by different notions of what the purpose of universities should be.
DR ALISON BARNES: Universities are so essential and absolutely so important, and we produce so much that is not just of economic value that is so integral to the fabric of our society.
DR ALISON BARNES: I’m such a passionate believer in public education and our university sector and the importance of it. And this is why I think CIVID-19 has been such a challenge. And in some ways I’m incredibly optimistic that we can stand together to save the sector. But I suppose it makes me so incredibly angry that the government’s walking away from this sector when we really need it, when we really need the fabric of our institutions to be protected.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Susan Goodwin thinks so, too. She’s a professor of policy studies from the University of Sydney. You heard her at the start of this episode and she’s got a proposal for the government.
NEWS GRAB Susan Goodwin: We need a UniKeeper plan now and for the future, that includes guaranteeing university places so no capping or deregulation of fees. We need universal student incomes and we need job security for all higher education workers.
NEWS GRAB Susan Goodwin: At the start of 2020, the youth unemployment rate was 12.5 per cent. It’s predicted that the youth unemployment rate may now rise to between 30 to 50 per cent. 82 per cent of students depend on paid employment to support them while they study. The Grattan Institute estimates that over 40 percent of 15 to 19 year olds and 30 per cent of 20 to 29 year olds will be out of work due to the crisis. In some universities, more than 80 per cent of staff under the age of 30 are insecurely employed in the casual and contract jobs in universities that are currently under threat.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: One thing that COVID-19 has shown is that the future is open. As uncertain as higher education is right now, that is something to keep firmly in view. What it means is that things can change. It’s why talking about the purpose of universities and the kind of society we want and need really, really matters. And that conversation is one we’ll be having in the remaining episodes of this podcast. Next week on The New Social Contract, we turn our attention to universities and the environment. If we need to build a more sustainable society, what does that mean for universities.
PROFESSOR MARK HOWDEN: We are at a crossroads, I think, and we can go down a range of different pathways. I fear that the default pathway will be very much return to the way things were. And not only return, but as return as rapidly as the way things were. For me, that actually means that we’d miss a great opportunity to do something different. To have some leadership that takes us into an Australia that we want to have rather than we just by default have developed. And I think in particular, that means dealing with climate change. COVID-19, this experience for all of the trauma that it’s caused in different ways has opened up people’s eyes. That change can be possible.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: And before I go, the voices you heard in the montage at the top of the podcast were from journalist Ellen Fanning presenting The Drum on the ABC on May 13.
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR TAMSON PIETSCH: Kylie Walker, who is CEO of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, appearing on the ABC’s 730 Report titled ‘Fears for the Viability of Australia’s Top Universities Without International Students’. And you also heard from the Victorian Minister for Higher Education, Gayle Tierney, on ABC Melbourne on May 20. The awkward exchange was between Labor Senator Murray Watt and Deputy Secretary for the Department of Education Robert Heferen at the Senate Select Committee for COVID-19, that took place on May 19. And you also heard a soundbite kindly submitted to The New Social Contract by Susan Goodwin, a professor of policy studies from the University of Sydney who was discussing her Uni Keeper policy proposal. I’m Tamson Pietsch and you’re listening to The New Social Contract podcast.
MALE VOICE OVER: The New Social Contract is a podcast series made by Impact Studios at the University of Technology Sydney. The production team live on the lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, whose lands were never ceded.
In the season finale of The New Social Contract, host Tamson Pietsch is joined by Dr Gwilym Croucher, Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, to consider for the final time how the relationship between universities, the state and the public might be reshaped as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this episode we look beyond Federal Education Minister Tehan’s proposals to ask three questions:
Higher education leaders and policy makers in Australia are facing a lot of hard decisions right now.
The New Social Contract Podcast spoke with UTS Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs and Shadow Minister for Education and Training Tanya Plibersek to find out their different perspectives on the purpose and role of universities in the 21st century.
There are lots of factors contributing to the uncertainty in the tertiary sector at present – will international students return? How much debt can be sustained? What will happen to research funding?
But one thing that would make it easier to act in the present, is a clear plan for what universities should do in the future. What are universities in Australia for? The answer to that question will shape the kind of system we get.
*Note: The interview with Vice-Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs took place on Tuesday June 9 2020.
The interview with Tanya Plibersek, Shadow Minister for Education and Training took place on Tuesday June 16 2020.
Who is it that makes up the constituencies of a 21st century university? And what should different sections of the public be demanding from those institutions?
These questions go to the core of higher education’s purpose. Do universities create communities – or do communities create universities? And why might we be seeing the answers to these questions change?
Thanks to The New Social Contract episode six guests: