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Australian Government Accord for Higher Education Reform: An Honest Response from a Passionate Academic

7 min read

S A Hamed Hosseini

Do national accords aimed at addressing public sector issues lead to substantive changes? I asked myself when I saw the Australian government (under Labor) unveiling their latest accord for higher education reform.

In the context of higher education in Australia, as in many other countries, profound restructuring has occurred since the adoption of neoliberal policies in the 80s, resulting in the disempowerment of staff and students and the corporatization of its institutions. Ironically, many of these changes were championed by the same party (of center-left), raising skepticism about their intent to tackle these challenges. Historically, such accords from left and right conservative parties have failed to bring about structural shifts that defy the grip of capital, the bedrock of the economy, and the root cause of socio-ecological crises including the crisis of higher education and the rest of the public service sector.

Despite being opportunities for voicing concerns, these consultations often yield technocratic mediocrity, where knowledge serves the economy, regardless of discourse around equity and sustainability. When mainstream channels of policymaking continue to be unyielding, genuine change demands a considerable amount of grassroots mobilization. This goes beyond unionism, as even unions can (have) be(en) entwined with pragmatism. While some hope for shifts in the younger rank-and-file members of left-conservative parties (Labor and Greens) exists, personal ambitions may hinder true transformation, resulting in a cycle of unfulfilled promises.

We find ourselves at a juncture where grassroots mobilization for substantial structural reforms within higher education seems increasingly distant due to a myriad of interconnected reasons. The degree of disempowerment embedded within the sector, epitomized by rampant casualization and exploitative labor practices among academic-professional staff, has taken root so profoundly that it has become a formidable obstacle. The stratification of staff into middle-range managerial layers further normalizes the status quo, fostering a culture of self-indoctrination that hinders meaningful change.

In this context, it becomes evident that the entire public sector, including higher education, has become entwined with the interests of big business and the system through which they thrive, often facilitated by the state. This realization underscores that achieving meaningful change within any sector necessitates a holistic transformation of the entire system. However, without powerful grassroots movements driving this overarching shift, the most likely trajectory remains business as usual.

Only when the contradictions of the current system become too burdensome for significant portions of the population do we witness a radicalization of politics, a phenomenon that has shown inklings in the past decade. Unfortunately, this radicalization appears to lean towards the far right, potentially magnifying social divisions.

Nonetheless, higher education workers and graduates possess agency.

In preparation for the inevitable turning point, they can equip themselves by continually educating themselves and others about the root causes of societal crises. Despite contending with inadequate compensation and job uncertainty, educators retain the capacity to propagate knowledge and insights firmly grounded in reality. Interestingly, this potential is not limited solely to their internal institutional resistance; rather, it thrives in broadening the horizons of their resistance to encompass sweeping societal transformations. The challenges confronting their sector possess intricate historical and societal origins that extend far beyond the confines of educational institutions.

Higher education, once hailed as a potential nucleus for revolutionary change—as evidenced during the fervent activism of the 1960s and 1970s—has endured a deliberate, politically orchestrated assault. This assault has aimed to mold it into a politically dysfunctional institution, reinforcing its role in serving the interests of an emerging knowledge economy that remains firmly controlled by the elite. Nonetheless, the essence of academia, with its potential to drive profound shifts, remains steadfast and can be reclaimed by harnessing collective efforts and inscribing a renewed purpose that transcends the confines of a restricted agenda.

This, in turn, allows them to resist not only the tangible forces of capital but also the allure of conspiracy theories that can divert attention from genuine systemic issues. By cultivating informed resistance, they can shape a discourse that speaks to the core challenges and solutions, fostering a counterforce against both actual conspirators and their conspiratorial alternatives.

Furthermore, the potential for impact extends beyond individual education and resistance. Higher education workers and graduates possess a unique advantage in shaping the trajectory of political discourse and action. By strategically engaging in party and extra-party politics, they can influence the mindset and ideologies of rank-and-file members and activists within these organizations. Given that many of these individuals are themselves products of higher education institutions, they carry an inherent understanding of the challenges and complexities facing the sector.

Through thoughtful engagement and open dialogue, educators and graduates can reshape the priorities and strategies of these political entities, embedding a deeper awareness of the systemic issues that underpin societal crises. By advocating for policies that challenge the status quo, promote equity, and prioritize sustainable well-being over narrow economic growth, they can contribute to the emergence of a political landscape that reflects the urgent need for meaningful change.

Moreover, recognizing that unions, as organized entities with resources and the ability to mobilize, hold the potential to save energy and build solidarity, it becomes vital for educators, including the casualized ones, to move beyond passive support. Instead, educators can seek to infiltrate and reclaim unions, infusing them with renewed purpose and vigor. This task is not without challenges, especially in the context of super-exploitation. It necessitates a journey of self-containment and self-structuring, traits that educators are well-acquainted with while navigating managerial metrics. By fostering such transformations within unions, educators can harness collective strength and drive significant shifts in the discourse, creating a stronger foundation for systemic change.

In essence, the power to effect transformation resides not only in individual resistance but also in collective efforts to infuse the realm of politics with fresh perspectives and values. By leveraging their intellectual and experiential capital, higher education workers can drive conversations, policies, and actions via and beyond the practice of accord-writing that challenge the current paradigm and pave the way for real change.

Higher education, akin to the broader education sector, stands not only as a subject of reform and transformation but also as a realm where both the interdependent internal institutional non-reformist reform and its transformative role within society are deliberated. The transformative potential of higher education lies not merely in educational delivery but in its capacity to shape discourse, instigate structural shifts, and lead societal change. Educators can become agents of informed resistance, challenging dominant narratives.

As an academic, my most straightforward and practical advice to my fellow colleagues is this

Embrace a process of curriculum and course content radicalization, particularly within humanities, social sciences, and creative arts. Even STEM educators possess the opportunity to ensure that their essential insights regarding the state of their sector and the imperative for reclamation are woven into extracurricular class discussions.

Approach the analysis of reality with a more radical lens in your research projects and research training endeavors. Replace conservative and dualistic/biased epistemologies (whether positivist or constructivist) with historical materialist and critical realist ones. Refrain from supervising or studying trivial subjects (no matter how personally passionate you are about them). Instead of thinking about how your project serves the national interest (a term that has no meaning whatsoever), see how it can help reshape the foundations of the system as we are in the age of foundational crises. Choose topics that promote not just critical thinking but also ‘transformative praxis,’ and resist the temptation to engage in projects or activities that appease managerial algorithms, as these actions ultimately contribute to your own annihilation within an increasingly Dickensian higher education environment. Instead, stay anchored to a balance between the passion that initially led you to this sector and the true yet lost purpose of the sector.  

Your intelligence and capabilities could have easily steered you towards a self-serving career in the business or private sector. However, don’t allow a retreat into self-centeredness to erode the meaningful essence of your life as a genuine academic – something no one can take away from you unless you relinquish it yourself. Remember, self-centeredness doesn’t just affect you; it permeates the environment you operate in, eventually returning to you like a boomerang when your colleagues are also forced into a mode of survival. The outer promotion in your career when it is dissociated from the inner promotion of your character is meaningless. Imagine yourself in retirement or facing redundancy; would you want to look back with regret, realizing that you missed out on numerous opportunities to make a significant impact, all because you chose to conform to the status quo?

Dedicate yourself to preserving your authentic values – these are the catalysts that instigate genuine transformation both for yourself and for the society you aspire to serve. In a sector fraught with vulnerabilities and uncertainties, unwavering commitment to your intrinsic ideals is what sets you apart and enables you to make a substantial impact. By fostering a collaborative and compassionate environment, you create a space that benefits everyone, including yourself, in the long run.

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