Graduate student unions have a role to play in the battle to decolonise universities

As shrinking higher education budgets leave staff and precarious workers in a bitter battle to hold ground, we must make space for graduate student unions on campus, writes Brian Kamanzi.

Debates on the form, function and direction of the process of decolonisation at South African universities, among many other spaces, have renewed impetus since the student-worker uprisings of 2015. Alongside this line of inquiry, the role of university both historically and looking into the future has become a key site of contestation.

Proponents’ arguments range from calling for increased support and work towards making the university a space that contributes to social transformation and social justice, to suggesting that the university has a role to play in revolutionary activity. What these debates have in common is the growing expectation that tangible gains be realised off the back of the critiques leveled against the status quo, and their reinforcement of institutions in the heat of fire, battle through protest and bitter rounds of negotiation.

As the movement fractures internally, and vice chancellors and the state ramp up bureaucratic and militarised responses, we should look to older, traditional organising forms for ideas on interventions that could help consolidate the momentum developed to date.

Consider recent developments at Columbia University in the United States, where graduate students have taken steady measures to form a union to establish a platform for collective bargaining agreements. (Meanwhile, the university is taking every measure to avoid recognising the organisation.)

This is not a new phenomenon but it signals the extent to which graduate students are leading the push towards more collectivised responses. At even the most elite universities, overcrowding, unequal treatment, wage fluctuations across faculties, rapidly expanding class sizes and, in the case of South Africa, fear of intimidation or victimisation over one’s political activism are on the rise.

Under neoliberalism and under conditions of near permanent “austerity measures” for everyone outside of the executive team permanent academic posts are short supply while access to the university, particularly at an undergraduate level, has increased. With this has come a university model that is highly dependent on short term academic workers comprised of tutors and teaching assistants, usually recruited from senior undergraduate years, and graduate students, often for a semester at a time.

At the University of Cape Town, where I am based, we have seen cases where graduate students have attempted to organise and use their labour power to support largely undergraduate and worker based strike action. In one instance, a collective of humanities tutors organised to help bring graduate students together under the banner of “UCT pens down” calling for a strike among tutors. This was during the campus shutdown in 2016, when online learning was used to undermine the strike and students who had less access to computers and the internet faced the brunt of this discrimination. Tutors offered academic support and lobbied to protect students from punitive administrative judgements relating to deferred exams and late submissions due to trauma or stress.

Looking forward, it would be naive to consider any “solution” to the demands of the #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing campaigns that do not include, at some level, the building of organisations and institutions that are able to hold the door open for future actions while also protecting gains.

Joint bargaining councils between graduate students working as tutors and teaching assistants in concert with catering staff, maintenance staff, security guards, administrators and progressive staff could prove instrumental in the fight to protect what has been won against outsourcing to date. After all, it took over 20 years of struggle on our campus alone to roll back some of the labour-brokering agreements from the Ramphele administration.

Throughput of black students up to PhD level have consistently featured as a serious concern across South African institutions. In the context of the demands for curriculum reform and the re-examination of pedagogical practices in classroom spaces, it is essential going forward for graduate students to hold space and organise to propose and secure strategic posts and influence in a modernising university system – a system that sees us either as tokens, cash cows, or paper-publishing-machines beholden only to rankings and disconnected from the very struggle that brought us into these instituitions.

Building organisations like graduate students unions for collective bargaining could strengthen the repertoire and capacity of existing movements, like the #FeesMustFall movement, that are seeking to agitate for institutional changes. Much like academics unions and administrative staff unions across several campuses, if concerted political work is not put into establishing long term relationships of solidarity, and if continuous efforts are not put towards political education then graduate student unions could possibly become the future enemies of movements like #EndOutsourcing as shrinking higher education budgets leave staff and precarious workers at all levels in a bitter battle to hold ground.

Featured image via Ra’eesa Pather