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University staff pressuring government in a fight for their jobs

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The NTEU is pressuring Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan for a lifeline to save the struggling tertiary education sector (Screenshot via YouTube)

As we recover from the coronavirus crisis, Australian university staff are being asked to take a pay cut as the sector is facing huge losses, writes Dr Martin Hirst.

IN A FEW SHORT MONTHS, the coronavirus pandemic has caused almost 300,000 deaths globally and there is no end in sight. It seems that the virus may also have finally killed the sick and frail Australian university system.

The pandemic has also caused a global economic collapse and the international tertiary education industry is not immune. At the beginning of April, the Asian Development Bank put the economic loss at US$4.1 trillion (AU$6.3 trillion). No doubt the final figure will be much higher. The world economy is on the brink of a severe deflationary recession — perhaps a dreaded depression. The World Bank tracking shows that such a scenario is inevitable, and it will hit soon.

Tertiary education is a vital sector of the Australian economy and the third-largest earner of export income, but it will not soon be bouncing back to business as usual.

Universities want staff to take a pay cut

The university sector’s magic pudding of endless income from international students has finally expired. The higher education sector has lost close to $5 billion in revenue this year and the outlook beyond 2020 is bleak. Future losses from a decline in international demand for Australian degrees are pegged at $13 to $15 billion. Universities Australia is also flagging over 20,000 job cuts.

In fact, the job cuts have already started. This week, in an email to staff, La Trobe Vice-Chancellor John Dewar actually boasts that he’s saved $7 million by sacking the university’s casual staff from 1 June this year.

The outlook for the sector is so bleak, in fact, that the National Tertiary Education Union's (NTEU) national executive has agreed to a pay cut for university teaching and research staff of between five and 15 per cent. The union says this is necessary to save 12,000 full-time academic jobs. Critics argue that it is a pathetic roll-over by union officials that will do nothing to prevent future redundancies and throws casual academics to the wolves.

By agreeing to the Orwellian-sounding National Jobs Protection Framework, the union leadership has effectively thrown in the towel and meekly surrendered to the neoliberal ideologues who manage the higher education sector, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association. There has been input from the Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC), which now goes by the innocuous-sounding name, Universities Australia.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the NTEU was calling on the Federal Government to come up with a rescue package for higher education, but the union’s leadership is unwilling to actually take up any kind of industrial fight.

In fact, the NTEU leadership has ignored motions passed at rank-and-file union meetings that called on the union to defend wages and conditions, not bargain them away without a struggle. The union has been negotiating with the universities for weeks but not telling the membership. NTEU members at the University of Melbourne only found out when it was mentioned in an all-staff email from the vice-chancellor.

Now the union has agreed to pay cuts, deferring hard-won wage rises scheduled under the award and a halt to all promotions for academic staff. Staff can be compulsorily transferred to other duties and ordered to take annual leave even if they don’t want to. The “framework” agreement will be in place till 30 June 2021, but it leaves it open for the pay cuts to become permanent.

The proposed deal also lets university management and the Federal Government off the hook. It fails to hold them to account for decades of mismanagement, the draining of money from the sector and the complete dismemberment of quality education.

When I started as an academic in 1993, semesters were 14 to 16 weeks long, tutorials were capped at around 15-20 students and staff got regular breaks to conduct research. Heads of school had a reasonable amount of autonomy and university campuses were thriving with active student clubs and societies.

Now, university campuses are cultural deserts and the idea of “learning” had been replaced with a neoliberal focus on the university as a business. Students are dehumanised and referred to as “equivalent full-time units” or EFTSUs.

EFTSUs are a source of profit to a new breed of vice-chancellors and the purpose of the university is to process the EFTSUs into “indentured labour units” (ILUs) using a production line model.

COVID-19 has exposed the ugly truth of a corrupted and bankrupt system and now the major campus union has capitulated and sacrificed its members to keep it on life-support.

A sick joke to play on union members

The NTEU’s document outlining the agreement reads like a piece of poorly-written propaganda from Centrelink, complete with fictional case studies. To save face after its humiliating and pathetic surrender to the vice-chancellors, the national office of the NTEU is calling for a “Day of Action” on 21 May to apply pressure to Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan to come up with a rescue package.

What a sick joke to play on the union’s membership. After striking a rotten deal with the sector’s bosses, the NTEU is expecting its members to take a selfie with a protest sign to be sent to the minister’s office.

That’s the full extent of the union leadership’s “campaign” — a selfie with a sign. The union leadership knows this is a rotten scam; by its own admission, it’s not expecting more than hundreds of responses to be emailed in.

Dan Tehan is going to laugh in their faces.

The membership is going to be demoralised and the vice-chancellors can’t believe their luck.

There’s another problem with the NTEU’s weak capitulation: it will embolden bosses in other sectors of the economy to push through wage cuts and similar rotten deals.

The ruling class is very happy to make workers pay for their economic recovery, the response of the NTEU means that other employers will now be pointing to this deal as an example of how the working class can be made to shoulder the burden.

Thankfully, there is pushback against the NTEU executive from some rank-and-file members. The agreement with the vice-chancellors was largely done behind the backs of the membership and as critics point out, it leaves thousands of casuals without any protection and most likely out of a job. The protections it offers on paper will be almost impossible to enforce and it concedes all power to the university’s administrators.

Union members now have a week to discuss the framework agreement before it is put to a national vote. A rank-and-file group is now coordinating to argue for a “no” vote on the measures.

Member meetings at some universities are already declaring for a “no” vote in the national ballot. There will also be a strong contingent of “no” voting delegates at the upcoming NTEU National Council which has to endorse the executive’s framework agreement before it goes to the members for endorsement.

If the “no” campaign is successful, it will put pressure on the NTEU to come up with a better deal and it will provoke a bitter fight between union members and university management.

Dr Martin Hirst is an Independent Australia columnist, a journalist, author and academic. You can follow him on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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