Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Common Alternatives

Creating Futures Beyond Capital and Carbon

Transforming Higher Education in Australia: A People-Planet Centred Vision

8 min read

Dr. S A Hamed Hosseini’s Insights on the Australian Universities Accord Panel Discussion Paper Consultation

Following are Hosseini’s answers to the questions formulated by the National Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU) as part of their effort to gather members’ opinions for the Accord response.

Top priority

NTEU: What should be the number 1 priority in higher education reform and why?

Hosseini: From my point of view, the number one priority in higher education reform in Australia should be university governance.

The current state of university governance is in dire need of a radical shift. University councils do not accurately represent the staff and communities they serve. It’s time for a change. Universities should not be run like private corporations. They need to adopt a cooperative model and be governed from the bottom up, with meaningful participation from staff and students. This new model will not only improve efficiency but also enhance the quality of education. The current situation is unsustainable. Staff are struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and the rate of exploitation has reached unprecedented levels. We cannot let the mental and physical well-being of our staff deteriorate any further. It’s time to make a change.

Elected students and staff, both casual and ongoing, must constitute the majority in the university councils. Non-elected members should be chosen by elected members and come from diverse backgrounds in our local communities, not just from the corporate sector. We must put a stop to the corporatization of universities. Instead, let’s fund them to enable them to serve the true interests of their communities, both nationally and internationally.

Academic Research

NTEU: How could Australia more effectively leverage its research capacity overall and use it to develop new capabilities and solve challenging problems?

Hosseini: Australia’s research capacity should be guided by the principles of social and ecological justice, rather than corporate profit and military domination. The Australian government must more effectively leverage its research capacity by prioritizing research that addresses social and ecological challenges over research that primarily serves the interests of corporations and the military-industrial complex. We must significantly increase funding for public universities and research institutions while reducing funding for corporate-backed research. This will allow our researchers to focus on topics such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and social inequality, which are critical issues facing our society and planet. Australian higher education must be enabled to shift its research paradigm towards more participatory and community-based approaches. This would involve engaging with communities and grassroots organizations and involving them in the research process from start to finish.

By working collaboratively with communities from local to international, researchers can better understand their needs and priorities and develop more effective solutions to address their challenges. The universities must also be enabled to invest in interdisciplinary critical and transformative research and break down the traditional silos of academia to foster collaboration between researchers in areas such as ecology, economics, sociology, and political science. Leveraging Australia’s research capacity should be guided by the principles of social and ecological justice, rather than corporate profit and military domination.

Australia’s research capacity should involve a shift away from the current exploitative and extractive economic model towards a more sustainable and just system. This requires recognizing and addressing the intersectional and interconnected oppressions of gender, race, class, and the environment. Australia should invest in research that prioritizes the needs and perspectives of marginalized communities, particularly women and Indigenous peoples, who are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and climate change. This research should not be limited to scientific fields but should also include interdisciplinary approaches that incorporate social and cultural dimensions of environmental issues.

Research training and pathways

NTEU: How could research training in Australia be improved to help early and mid-career researchers gain experience and develop their careers?

Hosseini: The research training should:

  • prioritize the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups, including women, Indigenous peoples, and people of color. Their experiences and knowledge should be respected and incorporated into the research process. This would require adequate funding and support for research that targets issues of gender, race, and environmental justice.
  • be free and accessible to all, regardless of their socioeconomic status. We must increase public funding for research institutions and create pathways for community members to participate in research. Research should be conducted with a focus on addressing the needs of the community, rather than solely serving the interests of corporations or the wealthy.
  • be conducted with a focus on building connections and collaborations between researchers and communities, rather than solely pursuing individual career goals.

System-wide approaches to increasing access and equity

NTEU: What changes to funding and regulatory settings would widen opportunities, remove barriers, and better support students, especially those from under-represented groups in higher education?

Hosseini: The current neoliberal model of market competition and reliance on private funding has created a system that is exclusionary, with under-resourced universities struggling to provide quality education and support services. To widen opportunities and remove barriers, there needs to be an increase in public funding for higher education, including support for disadvantaged students such as low-income students, indigenous students, and students from regional and remote areas.

This funding should also be used to create more equitable employment opportunities for academic and professional staff, including increasing the number of ongoing, full-time positions and addressing issues of wage theft and insecure work. The funding and regulatory changes should also address issues of gender, socioeconomic and ethnic inequality in higher education.

Gender-racial-class (intersectional) equity policies must be more effectively and widely adopted and implemented. The number of “culturally and linguistically diverse” (CALD) community members especially their female members in leadership roles must increase. Many CALD members are finding it very difficult to access higher education or complete their degrees since the institutions or significantly color-blind. CALD staff are rarely promoted to leadership roles! Addressing pay gaps nationwide and providing support for minorities will increase access to higher education. Changes are needed to widen opportunities and support under-represented groups in higher education.

Regulation and governance

NTEU: What regulatory and governance reforms are needed in the higher education sector? Would a national governance system for higher education be more effective, and if so, what would this look like?

Hosseini: The governance structure of higher education must be transformed by dismantling the current hierarchies in academia and research institutions and creating horizontal and collaborative structures that prioritize the needs and values of communities and the environment. Instead of relying on centralized and technocratic solutions, a more participatory and community-based approach to research and innovation must be adopted. This involves supporting community-led research initiatives, creating decentralized networks for knowledge-sharing and collaboration, and investing in open-source technologies that are accessible and adaptable to local contexts. The current profit-driven and growth-oriented model of research and development, which is inherently exploitative and unsustainable must be abandoned. The well-being of our communities and the planet must be the priority in leveraging our research.

Higher education workforce

NTEU: Only 1 in 3 higher education workers have ongoing, full-time employment. In recent years we have also seen sector-wide wage theft.
What regulatory and governance changes would help ensure higher education providers improve employment practices?

Hosseini: It is critical to acknowledge that most staff affected by insecure employment and wage theft in higher education are women, particularly those in casual or part-time roles. Therefore, any regulatory and governance changes must consider the gendered nature of these issues and work toward gender equity.

It is clear that the neoliberal model of higher education, which prioritizes profit over people, has led to these employment practices. Therefore, regulatory and governance changes must challenge this model and prioritize the needs and rights of workers. This could include implementing stronger labor laws, such as mandatory minimum hours for casual workers, and establishing a living wage for all higher education workers.

The regulatory and governance changes alone may not be sufficient in addressing these issues. The regularity laws must give a more meaningful chance to the staff to go for direct action, such as strikes and other forms of collective action necessary to demand better employment practices.

Moreover, establishing worker-led cooperatives and democratic decision-making structures in higher education institutions will help to ensure that the needs and rights of the staff and students, and their communities are prioritized, and decisions are made in a more equitable and sustainable manner. It is important to ensure that these changes prioritize the needs and rights of our higher education staff and students, particularly those most affected by insecure employment and wage theft.

NTEU: Public universities shed around 35,000 staff during the COVID pandemic.
Should the Government work with the sector to reduce the chances that sudden sector-wide job losses occur again?

Hosseini: The government should take responsibility for ensuring stable and secure employment practices within the higher education sector. This can be achieved through regulatory changes, such as implementing minimum standards for employment conditions and ensuring that all employees, including casual and part-time workers, have access to benefits such as sick leave and paid time off.

Additionally, governance changes that involve the meaningful participation of staff and students in the decision-making processes of higher education providers can help to address issues of job insecurity and wage theft. We need to move away from the neoliberal model of higher education that prioritizes profit over people. The government should recognize the value of social reproductive work and prioritize funding for sectors such as education, healthcare, and social services. The government should invest in publicly funded education, rather than relying on the market to dictate employment practices.

The government should empower workers and local communities to take control of their own educational institutions and make decisions about employment practices in a decentralized and democratic manner. The government should work with the sector to create a more just and equitable higher education system that prioritizes the well-being of workers and students.

International Education

NTEU: At the moment, a small handful of large inner-city universities receive the vast majority of international student fee income. How can the benefits of international education be shared broadly across the system, including in regional areas and for smaller institutions?

Hosseini: The concentration of international student fee income in a few large universities reflects the centralized and hierarchical nature of the current higher education system. The government must increase public funding for regional and smaller ones, to reduce their reliance on international student fee income. This can be done by reallocating funds from large universities to smaller ones and redirecting money from non-essential areas such as excessive administrative costs and infrastructure projects. Any efforts to broaden the benefits of international education must prioritize the well-being and rights of all those involved, including local workers and the natural environment. Any efforts to broaden the benefits of international education must involve decentralization and a shift towards a more democratic and participatory model of higher education. We must promote alternative education models, such as community-based and cooperative learning, that prioritize local knowledge and community engagement.

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