Union helps university leaders reopen Australian campuses as COVID-19 resurfaces

Australian universities opened for face-to-face teaching six weeks ago despite COVID cases starting to rise again, fueled by Omicron variants. Since then, cases have risen rapidly in schools and presumably in universities, but many directions are covering up the infections.

An NTEU gathering at Macquarie University in late 2019 [WSWS Media]

While some universities have pursued a “blended” model, where students have the “option” to attend some courses online, and some have allowed non-teaching staff to work partially from home, other managements have insisted on a full return to campus.

Many universities have even stopped reporting infections among students and staff, in line with the profit-making “living with the virus” scheme adopted by the Liberal-National coalition and Labor governments.

This was done with the support of trade unions covering university workers, including the National Union for Higher Education (NTEU). At union meetings in February, the reopening of campuses was presented as a fait accompli and significant staff concerns were ignored.

A growing number of university workers are disgusted with the role of the union and the inadequate mitigation measures it has demanded of employers. There are concerns about the growing dangers of infections, serious illnesses, deaths and long debilitating COVID.

One worker commented on Facebook: ‘The NTEU is so pathetic they have to ‘push’ for face masks? Please watch and see how ineffective they are! I can’t even get face masks without begging. A decapitated union.

Another casual scholar said, “I was asked to teach two f2f tutorials. I’m terrified of getting sick and having to work through this.

A similar comment on Twitter said: ‘I’m being made to report to work, to a university, while people are dying, thousands of people are getting covid, and a lot of children are suffering from it too. Money before life is what Australia is today.

There have been significant outbreaks, including one at the Australian National University (ANU), which saw 660 students residing on campus infected in the first week of term.

Dr Katie Freund, education researcher at ANU, wrote on Twitter: “Is the ‘vibrant campus experience’ worth the health of the #ourANU community? It’s only day 2 of the semester! We are failing in our duty of care to students.

More recently, an ANU scholar tweeted: “Is there a way to avoid getting COVID if you teach face-to-face at universities? Like, surely it’s not inevitable? (Not one particular university, not even Australia, but most universities in most countries).

Members of the university’s teaching staff report steady streams of students testing positive. However, many universities do not make records publicly available, so the extent of the spread is hidden.

the World Socialist Website recently spoke to several academics about the dangerous reopening.

John, an academic from Sydney, said: ‘I see no real action the university is taking to protect staff and students from risk in teaching spaces. For example, it is not clear to me whether the ventilation in offices or teaching rooms is adequate. The state government and the university clearly don’t care about people catching COVID.

“I don’t feel like the government has at any time handled the pandemic well. We have moved to a model that prioritizes corporate profits over the public. This is especially true of the outrageous way the return to school has been done. Parents have a legal obligation to send their children to school and are therefore completely unable to protect themselves from COVID. Basic measures that schools could take to protect families have not been implemented.

Lucy, an academic from Western Sydney University, commented: ‘The push to return to campus puts the health and safety of all teaching and professional staff at risk, not to mention that of thousands of students.

“The NTEU at our university has simply remained inactive, despite having the power and arguably the duty to oppose such a decision. The NTEU seems to prioritize good relations with management above the health and safety of its members.

“Our university’s demands on staff are driven by the profit imperative. Many teachers are forced to work in sweatshop conditions to increase their profits. What does the NTEU do with our dues? He certainly does not use them to defend our rights at work.

“Most of our young academics are employed at A level on three-year contracts with two-year probationary periods. This puts them in an odious position. They bear excessive workloads but cannot complain about this exploitation for fear of reprisals.

Universities have been reopened under the murderous ‘let it rip’ policies of governments around the world. For the ruling financial elite, reopening schools and universities to face-to-face learning is integral to ensuring that workers return to work to continue generating profits.

According to an online petition to Queensland University of Technology (QUT), management has told staff members they do not have to tell colleagues or students if they have COVID-19. At the same time, QUT is cramming staff and students into classrooms with unsafe density levels.

Faced with the complicity of pro-business unions, academics and students should take matters into their own hands. They must unite and form rank-and-file committees – completely independent of the unions – to oppose unsafe conditions. They should demand the closure of infected campuses and a return to online learning to protect students and staff.

To discuss how to take this fight forward and form grassroots committees, contact the Committee for Public Education, a grassroots organization of educators, students, and parents supported by the Socialist Equality Party. :

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/commforpubliceducation/

Twitter: @CFPE_Australia

Email: [email protected]

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