The idea of a university is a noble and important one. A place where knowledge can be shared, tested, developed and expanded. Where people can interrogate everything important about who we are, how the world works and how we fit within it. This happens in an environment built on freedom of thought, expression and inquiry.
A modern university is a community with libraries, food outlets, cleaners, security staff, administrators, carers, plumbers, electricians, specialist technical staff and many more. The bills have to be paid, computer systems maintained and supported, buildings built, gardens watered, the learning environment kept safe. Such spaces don’t happen by accident. They need to be constructed and maintained.
This is the work of highly qualified professional staff who keep the institution functioning in every way. The internationally understood term is Education Support Personnel (ESP).
And yet, the work of most ESP is often unrecognised or undervalued. They make up around 57% of Australian universities’ workforce. Their pay is frequently less than their academic colleagues, and when budget cuts are being considered, they are often the first to go.
Pre-COVID, about 30% of university income in Australia came from international students who had become a critical funding source. When COVID hit Australia, our universities were hit badly. When Australia’s borders where closed and students stopped travelling, there was a significant funding shortfall.
The Federal Government introduced a scheme providing funding to businesses and organisations to help protect jobs across the economy, but actively and purposefully kept that funding from universities. This led to thousands of job losses.
Estimates vary, but the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) believes as many as 30-40,000 people lost their jobs including causal, fixed term, and permanent staff. Of the fixed term and permanent staff, it is reported that around 70% of them were ESP.
When job losses took place, they happened with haste and often without proper planning. Critical people have been lost in many workplaces. It is a frequent refrain from professional and academic staff that the result is not just a problem of overwork, but that the work simply cannot all get done.
Recent analysis has shown that most university finances have survived the crisis, and that many have healthier balance sheets than before the pandemic because of the cuts they have imposed. In short, management decisions have cut deeper than they should have if their purpose was to respond to the pandemic crisis.
The NTEU has started to focus heavily on health and safety in the workplace. And not just on whether our university workplaces are COVID safe. But also on whether excessive workloads are creating a risk to peoples’ health.
Bargaining processes are currently underway at most universities and staff will be seeking recognition of the pain they have been through with key improvements on job security (particularly for our casual and fixed term members), academic freedom protections, and pay.
The support mechanisms that have maintained our universities as vibrant communities are starting to fray. Many of the people who have kept our sector functioning without drawing much attention to themselves are under real pressure and the impact may not be fully revealed for some time.
The Australian Government, who refused to support universities in a crisis, is facing a difficult election as a result of incompetence on a range of issues. But the full political impact may not be known for some time.
The professionals who make up the Education Support Personnel are devoted to their work, but also to the purpose of their work. They take pride in their role in supporting and maintaining the community of scholars.
But everyone has their limits. There is a significant element of good will amongst staff who give more than they should for the workplace they love. But the current pressures put that at risk. The long-term consequences for the sector are yet to be seen. Government and managements have created a climate where people may lose their passion for their job and consequently refuse to take on more and more work without recognition for their efforts.
Universities depend on ESP. For the sake of the academy, university managements and government better start paying serious attention to the damage that has been done and do something about it.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.