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Why be a unionist in a university?

University of Sydney 2013

A couple of weeks ago I sat on the stage in a graduation ceremony in the Great Hall at University of Sydney – the one that looks like a piece of 15th century Cambridge built by a terrible surveyors’ mistake in an Australian paddock.  One of my PhD students was being awarded her degree, after 5 years’ hard work.

As I looked at the other side of the hall, where the parents, partners and children were sitting, I could see why public universities matter, and need to be defended.  For all the depressing news from Canberra about funding cuts, fees, league tables and the rest, universities are important institutions, which people in the wider community value.

Rightly.  This is the most advanced part of our whole education system, responsible (among other things) for producing the knowledge and the workforce for the rest of the education system. Though Australia doesn’t produce more than 3 or 4 percent of the world’s scientific publications, our universities produce most of the knowledge about Australian society and environment – and bring knowledge from the rest of the world into Australian life.  This country would be a sadder as well as poorer place without a flourishing university system.
But universities are becoming more difficult places to work in.  The neoliberal era since the 1980s has seen seen a spectacular decline in real government funding of university budgets, and a heavier and heavier reliance on student fees.  We have seen the rise of corporate-style management, with million-dollar-a-year Vice-Chancellors and their entourage sounding, and behaving, like big businessmen.
That means more authoritarian decision-making, undermining of industrial democracy, downward pressure on staff wages and conditions.  That is not temporary, nor a product of bad character.  It is a logic now built in to university management.  And it is undermining universities as public institutions.
When I wrote my open “Letter to Michael” during the 2013 enterprise bargaining struggle at U of Sydney – triggered by management’s attempt to degrade conditions as well as cut real wages – I told our Vice-Chancellor that unions are an important asset in university life.  Among other things, unions will cut through the public-relations guff and tell what the real problems are, where the shoe pinches.
Now I have studied some of the bizarre proposals about university futures coming from management consultants, not to mention the latest round of toxic policymaking in Canberra, I would say more than that.  The union is now where the most creative and well-informed policy discussions about universities are happening.  If Australian higher education is to change for the better, much of the thinking will come from the active membership of the National Tertiary Education Union.
Being a unionist is not just about protecting our own interests and security – though that’s not a trivial matter, with proposals for more casualization and outsourcing surfacing almost monthly around the country.
"I love teaching but casual work breaks my heart!"

Being a unionist is also about taking responsibility for what happens to our colleagues and fellow-workers - for making sure there are fair deals across the workforce. That has become particularly important as managements have pursued divide-and-rule strategies.  Universities now have groups of staff in very different situations, in terms of insecurity as well as income, and it is important to have strong links across these differences.
There’s an old union song called “Solidarity Forever”.  Though it’s too sentimental for many people now, it makes a valid point.  Responsibility is shared, and it’s joint action rather than individual action that counts most.
Joint action creates a certain culture in unions, and a certain personal experience in being an active member.  I’ve been in a number of different union branches, and I’ve always found shared membership a source of deep support.
I know that unions can become hierarchical, bureaucratic or factionalized, and I’ve known some that are all three.  But unionism always has democratic possibilities.  Unions express, in a way that nothing else does, the ideas, concerns and needs of the people who work at ground level – who actually make the economy work.  Unions can be vibrant and inventive.
(An aside: it says something about where creativity comes from, that there’s a great wealth of union and social movement songs, and a great absence of management songs.  Can you imagine a group of middle managers sitting around a camp-fire in the gathering dark and belting out a chorus about next year’s financial modelling, or the unique thrill of sacking workers who don’t meet their KPIs?)
Being an active union member gives you responsibilities and it does impose demands.  You have to commit time and energy.  You sometimes have to follow a majority decision that you disagree with; that’s part of respecting your colleagues. You may be called to act in local disputes that become highly personal; at other times you will be called to think about broad strategy.
Being an active union member can be hard.  It can also be exciting and creative.  Shared activism generates energy, as well as demanding it.  You are dealing with important issues and you have a chance to make a real impact on them.  In some ways it can re-shape your life, with new ideas and new friendships.  When I look back, I realize that the union has been an important part of my life, and my thinking, throughout my career. I hope that is true for a new generation too.

The Knowledge Industry and Counter-Power: Subversive Futures for Intellectual Workers

Here is the video of my Anti-Inaugural Lecture, on 5 September in the Great Hall at the University of Sydney. About 450 people came to this event, which was also attended by a statue of William Charles Wentworth (a founder) and oil-paintings of many Chancellors.  You will see most of the living participants in the recording on YouTube (LINK HERE) or Vimeo (HERE), or watch below.

The video was splendidly produced, recorded and edited by Fabio Cavadini and Amanda King. My thanks also to: Rebecca Pearse for guidance and materials; Sue Goodwin and Michael Thomson for introducing and chairing the proceedings; the Faculty of Education & Social Work, and Sydney Ideas, for organizing the event; Fran Waugh, Meredith Hall and Jane Harvey for the idea, and making it happen; and Kylie Benton-Connell for the memorable conclusion.

Some of the pictures shown in the lecture have been included in the video; unfortunately others could not be included, for copyright reasons. The video runs for about 1 hour 10 minutes. To keep it to this length, the period of questions and answers has been omitted.

A Change of Condition

At midnight tonight, 31 July 2014, my academic career comes formally to an end.  I will be retiring from my job as University Professor at the University of Sydney.

This is a moment of personal loss.  I will miss meeting new students and exploring ideas with them; I will miss the shared labour with colleagues, in building teaching programmes and research agendas and making them work.  This has been my working life for 43½ years, at eight universities.

I hope the moment will also be one of renewal - continuing cooperation and friendships, developing the southern-theory agenda, and making new beginnings in intellectual and political work.  I will be re-vamping, not stopping, my working life. ...  You will see the results on this blog.

For some time to come, I will continue to be connected at the University of Sydney, The University Senate has kindly appointed me Professor Emerita.

There's an article about my career in Sydney Alumni Magazine.  On 5-6 September I will be giving an anti-inaugural lecture, and there will be a conference/discussion about intellectual work and social justice.  They are free, but please register at these links.  Here are some details:
The chaos of working life.
Picture from Sydney Alumni Magazine                 


For people in reach of Sydney, please come to this event on 5-6 September:

On the occasion of Raewyn Connell’s retirement, the Faculty of Education and Social Work, together with Sydney Ideas, will be co-hosting an Anti-inaugural Lecture by Raewyn on the evening of Friday 5 September in the Great Hall, University of Sydney, from 5.00 – 6.30pm.  “The Knowledge industry and counter-power:  Subversive futures for intellectual workers in neoliberal Australia”.

This will be followed on Saturday 6 September with an all-day conference “Counterhegemonies - intellectual work and social justice in changed times”The topic of the conference will be our historical moment, the current situation of counter-hegemonic movements, and possible ways beyond this time of reaction and violence.  The conference will explore themes addressed in Raewyn’s work, including class, gender, education, and intellectual labour.  This will be held at the New Law School on the main campus of University of Sydney from 9am – 5pm.

Open access papers

Too much knowledge is locked up behind 'pay walls' these days. But there are a few ways around it still. Most academic publishers allow writers to distribute pre-publication versions of their work for free. 

In this folder you will find a group of my most recent papers. You can download the pdfs, or read them online as you please. Over time, I hope to add work to this collection. 

For now, here's the list of contents so far.
Dr Faustus had to trade his soul for
forbidden knowledge. This
open-access repository shouldn't
pose the same dangers.

Connell, Raewyn. 2014. Setting sail: the making of sociology in Australia, 1955-75. Journal of Sociology, published online May 2014.

Connell, Raewyn. 2014. The sociology of gender in Southern perspective. Current Sociology, published online 19 March 2014.

Connell, Raewyn. 2014. Global tides: market and gender dynamics on a world scale. Social Currents, vol. 1 no. 1, 5-12; published online February 2014.

Connell, Raewyn and Nour Dados. 2014. Where in the world does neoliberalism come from? The market agenda in southern perspective. Theory and Society, vol 43 no. 2, 117-138; published online February 2014.

Connell, Raewyn. 2014. Using southern theory: decolonizing social thought in theory, research and application. Planning Theory, vol. 13 no. 2, 210-223; published online September 2013.

Market World

Edward VII, the rotund monarch who didn’t live quite long enough to see the Great War start in 1914, is supposed to have remarked of social reform in his day, “We are all socialists now-a-days”.  If he had lasted another hundred years, he might have changed it to “We are all capitalists now-a-days”.
A well-known socialist
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In our generation, capitalist market ideology – neoliberalism - has become dominant.  Free markets, deregulation, privatisation, user-pays: these are our tunes, and we even call them “reforms”. Taxes down, profits up! Even China, the great red hope of the proletarian revolution, is producing millionaires by the bushel.

Where does this ideology come from?  There’s a familiar origin story: neoliberalism was dreamed up by Professors Hayek and Friedman, spelt out in the Chicago School of Economics, rammed through by Reagan and Thatcher, clamped down on the rest of the world by the IMF and World Bank.
Yes, but... there are reasons to doubt this.  Neoliberalism got a grip on some parts of the global South before Reagan and Thatcher came to power.  Important features of neoliberalism in the developing world don’t correspond to the model circulating in the global North.
Doubt about the origin story is the starting-point for our investigation of neoliberalism as a global issue.  Two papers from this project have just been published.

Pre-publication versions of the papers available HERE

The first is about origins and the shape of neoliberalism on a world scale. Raewyn Connell and Nour Dados, “Where in the World does Neoliberalism Come From?”, Theory and Society, vol. 43 no. 2, 117-138.  Here is the abstract:
Neoliberalism is generally understood as a system of ideas circulated by a network of right-wing intellectuals, or an economic system mutation resulting from crises of profitability in capitalism.  Both interpretations prioritise the global North.  We propose an approach to neoliberalism that prioritises the experience of the global South, and sees neoliberalism gaining its main political strength as a development strategy displacing those hegemonic before the 1970s.  From Southern perspectives, a distinct set of issues about neoliberalism becomes central: the formative role of the state, including the military; the expansion of world commodity trade, including minerals; agriculture, informality and the transformation of rural society.  Thinkers from the global South who have foregrounded these issues need close attention from the North, and exemplify a new architecture of knowledge in critical social science.
The second is an essay for the first issue of a new sociology journal, Social Currents, that has just been launched by the Southern Sociological Society in the United States.  Congratulations to the Society, and the editors, on the launch!
This paper looks at the old question of the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy, in the new conditions of neoliberalism – and thinks about the role of sociology. Raewyn Connell, “Global Tides: Market and Gender Dynamics on a World Scale”, Social Currents, 2014, vol. 1 no. 1, 5-12.  Here is the abstract:
Sociology may be heading for a marginal place in a market-dominated world. If it is to do more, it must address major questions about the social world now coming into existence. One of these is the relationship of gender dynamics to neoliberalism. Neoliberalism has to be understood on a world scale, not just as an export of global-North preoccupations. Older models of the relationship between capitalism and gender, built on systems models of both, need to be replaced in the light of the coloniality of gender. Researchers across the global South are opening up new perspectives on gender and power; new dynamics of change are visible in transnational arenas created by empire and neoliberal globalization.

Young men, masculinity and violence

There have recently been episodes of violence on the streets of Sydney which have attracted huge attention.  The media label for the problem is “alcohol-fuelled violence” and the authorities have just announced a package of control measures.  Blame is being shared out to the “male brain”, macho culture, the demon drink, not enough police, weak sentencing by judges, and more.

We can correct some of the muddy thinking.  Here is the link to my piece on young men, masculinity and violence just published on the Australian public affairs website The Conversation. (It has attracted 27 thousand views and been followed by 500 comments.)  Here is a short version:

The recent outcry in Sydney about “alcohol-fuelled violence” has many people asking whether young men are out of control.  If we are concerned with men’s violence in Australia, the half-hidden epidemics of family violence, sexual harassment and rape are wider problems than street bashings by strangers. But the street violence is worrying, is more visible and has got media attention.

Is this “alcohol-fuelled violence”? Drinking is often part of the lead-up to violent episodes. But alcohol can’t meaningfully be called a “fuel” of any particular behaviour. It is sometimes a depressant, sometimes a stimulant.  In many situations it’s more likely to make you feel sleepy or ill than encourage you to hit out. It’s the circumstances of drinking, rather than the chemical, that we need to understand.

Can we blame “the male brain”, testosterone, or genetics?  Are young men hangovers from a primitive world where males fight cave bears? Those are bed-time stories.  More than a hundred years of research looking for broad psychological differences between men and women have found remarkably few. Studies involving millions of people show that men as a group, and women as a group, are psychologically very similar. This finding goes against many of our stereotypes; but the evidence is strong.  We cannot explain men’s involvement in severe violence by generalized sex differences in mentalities.

Nor can we blame a “criminal type” of human being. Criminologists have, however, identified social circumstances where patterns of violent behaviour might be learned.  These circumstances include high levels of social inequality and marginality, situations in which there is cultural emphasis on men’s dominance over women, and confrontations with authority.

The media?  There is no direct transmission from what people see on a screen to how they act on the street. But there is a relentless flow of images in “action” movies, commercial football, other body-contact sports, cop shows, thrillers, and the like.  Those make up a large chunk of current popular entertainment, with a huge cumulative audience. So media are feeding young men narratives about how men get excitement, success and respect through aggression, confrontation and dominance. But what would make young men take up such stories?

“Alcohol-fuelled violence” often involves some kind of masculinity challenge – for instance, a group of young men confronting the bouncers at a drinking venue.   Masculinities are patterns of conduct that have to be learned. There are multiple forms of masculinity, some more honoured than others. Especially for young men, masculinity is often in question or under challenge.  The presence of an audience is important.  Some of the recent episodes are in zones of exception – places and times in which ordinary social rules are supposed not to apply.

So we need to look hard at the social situations in which violence is happening.  And we need to ask what else is happening in these young men’s lives. Is our society giving them secure jobs? Worthwhile work to do? Models of positive relations with women? Occasions for care and creativity?

I would guess the answer to these questions is often no. But I’m not sure of it – and I don’t think our legislators are, either.  It would be a great pity if the main response to these dismaying episodes is more confrontation, this time from the government.

Eating Our Young in the Modern University

In the last few years there has been anguished talk about the casualization of university teaching.  There are credible estimates that half of the undergraduate teaching in Australian universities is now done by part-time or contract staff, not by the permanent academics.

It’s now common for current graduate students, recent PhD graduates, and sometimes not-so-recent graduates, to be juggling two, three or even more part-time jobs to make ends meet.  They can be teaching at the same time on very different courses, in different departments, in different universities.

It’s an old and sensible arrangement that some university teaching is done by non-permanent staff.  They used to be called ‘tutors’ or ‘demonstrators’.  These jobs were assumed to be the first step in an academic career.  A newcomer would get some teaching experience, alongside some research experience, under the benevolent eye of senior academics.

That system could be exploited by university departments.  Some well-qualified women, especially, were kept indefinitely on annual appointments as tutor or demonstrator.  But this situation was seen as scandalous, when public attention was drawn to it.

No longer.  It’s seen as smart management.  The permanent academics in charge of undergraduate courses are now expected to act as low-level managers of a casual labour force.  Eerily like the way foremen on the wharves, a hundred and twenty years ago, used to pick You, You and You from the crowd of starving labourers at the dock gate, according to how many ships had come in that day.  (The area of Sydney where this used to happen was called “The Hungry Mile”. )

At a system-wide level, the academic workforce is being re-shaped into two tiers: a more-or-less permanently employed elite, and a short-term insecure workforce doing the mass teaching.  Even those who make the transition are not very secure, as university managements try to degrade employment conditions and conduct periodic purges, raids and restructures.

It’s easy to blame the managers, and some do behave very badly while being paid outrageous salaries.   But a system-wide problem isn’t produced by individual pathology.  Behind the bullying is a neoliberal policy logic, at national and international level.  In this logic, good management consists of driving down labour costs and maximizing corporate income, installing systems of surveillance and pretend accountability to control the staff, building a glossy public image and agonizing over where the university, considered as an individual firm, sits in the latest league table.  Top managers become celebrities, and are invited to think of themselves as part Louis XIV, part J. Pierpont Morgan.

We are producing more and more doctoral graduates in Australia, and in most parts of the world.  That’s a goal of all university managements, and the national government too.  It’s an important part of building a contemporary intellectual culture.  Research is the cutting edge of knowledge formation, and research is work (a highly specialized kind, but definitely work) and that needs a workforce.  This workforce needs to be suitably educated, obviously, and that’s what our current research degree arrangements (steadily becoming more controlled and rigid) are about. 

But the intellectual workforce also needs to be sustained and enabled to flourish, over time.  And that’s where the current neoliberal economy, policy settings, and managerial practices are operating perversely and destructively.

Neoliberalism sees education as a private good, a commodity, and applies that logic to the university sector.  Neoliberal regimes focus on short-term calculations of cost and profit – that applies in the corporate economy and the political system as well as to education – massively discounting (and often completely ignoring) long-term consequences.

Therefore managers in all sectors are pushed towards a mining strategy:  looking for immediately exploitable resources, extracting them, and selling them on a global market.  The Australian economy has been restructured around this strategy in the last thirty years, with open-cut coal and iron ore mining in the lead.

What goes for minerals also goes for social life.  The neoliberal economy mines the social: it looks for transactions, practices and institutions that can be fenced off and transformed into commodities.  Privatisation of public sector agencies was an early form of this.  Commodification of access is another form, now being hugely elaborated on the Internet.

I think that is, basically, what is happening in the university sector.  Neoliberal governments have commodified access, through ever-increasing fees; they have re-defined universities as competing firms, and steadily shrunk the per capita public funding.  Neoliberal managers in the universities have responded by looking for resources to mine.  Students and their families are the main ore body; but the labour force also has capacities that can be mined.

The consequence of this dire equation is that as the universities produce more qualified researchers, they also produce more and more insecurity in the form of casualized teaching - which is currently the main employment opportunity for doctoral graduates.  If current managerial thinking about putting courses on-line is followed through, this situation will become entrenched.  The MOOC model, for instance, requires a tiny specialized workforce at the top and a much larger casual workforce at the bottom.

The short-term logic of the neoliberal university is good for the neoliberal politicians, as it takes pressure off their budgets; it’s good for the university managers, as it gives them fat salaries and expanding power.  It’s already having a corrosive effect on the situation of young intellectual workers, and is degrading the quality of higher education, graduate and undergraduate.  The longer-run consequences for sustaining an intellectual culture are appalling. 

But of course!  How could I be so naive?  Why would anyone imagine that our corporate and state elites actually want a flourishing intellectual culture?