The strikes currently embroiling the tertiary sector reflect how universities undervalue and exploit the work of both academics and artists. By Sophie Knezic and Lisa Radford.

Surviving the gigiversity

Artist and casual lecturer Ruth O’Leary at Castlemaine station on the way to the RMIT strike.
Artist and casual lecturer Ruth O’Leary at Castlemaine station on the way to the RMIT strike.
Credit: Kate Just

Last month, we went on strike with members of the University of Melbourne branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). It was the first week-long strike at the university since stonemasons walked off in support of the eight-hour day 167 years ago, and it followed the largest union meeting at the Victorian College of the Arts in more than a decade. Since May, employees at seven of Victoria’s eight universities have taken industrial action.

This action is symptomatic of a higher education sector in crisis. The parlous state of universities is reflected in reports of endemic wage theft and “entrenched non-compliance” with workplace law. According to Universities Australia’s “2020 Higher Education Facts and Figures” report, 71 per cent of teaching-only staff are casually employed.

In a report facilitated by the NTEU, Professor Joo-Cheong Tham of Melbourne Law School exposes universities as workplaces where job insecurity is rife, resulting in an exodus of talent. Staff are subject to constant restructures and semester-to-semester or short fixed-term contracts that result in widespread exploitation, mainly through excessive unpaid working hours. Months are spent each year on grant applications rather than teaching or research. Unsafe work practices lead to bullying and harassment – for example, the recent resignation of Dr Eddie Cubillo, associate dean of Indigenous Studies at Melbourne Law School. These issues disproportionately affect women and under-represented cultural and socioeconomic groups.

On the surface, everything seems normal – art is still being made and degrees conferred. Behind the scenes, swaths of deeply demoralised workers are coerced into a two-tiered system – a wedge of precarity driven between employees on contracts and the permanently employed. The effects run deep. Casualised work with no leave entitlements and no wages outside the 24-week semester periods creates acute financial stress. When a colleague’s mother died a few years ago, she went to the funeral in the morning and was back teaching in the afternoon – no teach, no class, no pay. Underneath is the unspoken but pernicious devaluing of the casual worker, who is treated as flexible, cheap and contingent – attitudes that become internalised.

In this divided workplace, the reciprocal relationship between teaching and research is elided, entrenched by managerial attitudes where the research achievements of permanent staff are celebrated while those of casual employees are overlooked. Permanent academics are encouraged to take on middle management roles – the exemplar of excellence in the corporate university. In research for the journal Higher Education, academics Gwilym Croucher and Peter Woelert wrote that managerial roles grew 122 per cent from 1997 to 2017, with senior management roles expanding by 110 per cent, while insecurely contracted colleagues did the bulk of teaching. As Tham argues, underpinning managerialism is the precept that “senior management knows best”, a creed that is comfortable with opaque processes and often has scant regard for the ground-level expertise of staff.

As industrial lawyer Imogen Beynon says, “Market capitalism is making money off labour that is freely given in exchange for cultural capital”. The gigification of universities is not unfamiliar to arts workers. The artist doesn’t just map this paradigm: they exemplify it in extremis.

Employment in the arts is mostly intermittent, freelance or contract-based. Inequity is ubiquitous – it is a world dotted with winner-takes-all prizes based on the implicit ideology of a sliding scale of talent. The very existence of art depends on the notion of art being its own reward. Artists, inculcated in working practices that are underpaid and self-exploitative, are the perfect toilers for the corporate university – the level 4 casual with an MFA who installs exhibitions and sets up studios on $48 an hour might make $25,000 a year – less than what the vice-chancellor earns in a week on his $1.5 million salary.

Teaching conditions are learning conditions. In its submission to the federal higher education review this year, the National Association for the Visual Arts noted the cuts made across universities, and concluded that arts education was “devalued and under-resourced”. Arts and studio-based learning are particularly targeted. Among many examples: Western Sydney University’s art school closed in the early 2000s; in 2014 at UNSW, the College of Fine Arts began to be phased out; in 2017 Sydney College of the Arts campus was closed and courses downgraded; Australian National University made major cuts in 2020; and Griffith University cut staff at Queensland College of Art before 2021. Who’s next?

Right-wing media exacerbate this damage, condemning universities as hotbeds of “cultural Marxism”. And though the culture industry is worth $122 billion to the economy, federal arts funding was cut by 19 per cent per person in the decade from 2007/o8.

Like the higher education sector, arts workers have witnessed the increasing proletarianisation of skills in favour of “bullshit jobs”. Managers tick boxes on equity, yet there has been a remarkable increase in inequality. The economist Yanis Varoufakis calls this “techno-feudalism” – labour rendered omnipresent and invisible by the datafication and stratification of knowledge and skills.

Novelist Jennifer Mills says making art belongs to an older, more essential reciprocal economy, and a future of work that has not yet arrived. Art, she says, demands the lifelong work of learning, honing and sharing a craft, the commitment to belonging to a community of makers. Its collective gift and its radical autonomy promises the possibility of liberation from alienated labour. Aesthetics aside, unprecedented solidarity and collectivity has been shown by our peers and students. As cultural tradies, we note the parallel to the factory floor: we are the human resources being mined during the Amazonification of our public universities.

The parallels between the exploitative working practices of the gig economy and the strategies of management that deliberately create insecure and alienated workplaces are clear and shared internationally. From September 25, staff at 140 British universities will take part on a five-day strike over exploitative working conditions and low pay. On August 31, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the Arts Tony Burke said he intended to end the “permanent casual worker” loophole through the Closing the Loopholes bill. On September 8, the NTEU University of Melbourne branch voted to strike again next month, sceptical of a heavily caveated offer to create a workforce with 75 per cent secure employment.

Some critics of the union think we should burn the university to the ground and start again. In bushfire-prone Australia, we wonder if there is another solution. Perhaps we can ensure our survival by making our systems and institutions sustainable – even the old ones. Unless things change, our future cultural knowledge is in jeopardy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "Surviving the gigiversity".

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