Australia's university staff have demanded an immediate 15 per cent rise in their salaries and warned they will take industrial action if the government does not agree.
In return they will support an increase in university operating times, including introduction of a summer term, and a reform of personnel appraisal schemes.
But while the government may have accepted that some increase was warranted - federal public servants have just been awarded 5.6 per cent more - it is certain to baulk at 15 per cent. An increase of that size would add another Aus$500 million (Pounds 250 million) to the salaries bill.
Delegates attending the National Tertiary Education Union's annual council meeting last month voted in favour of the 15 per cent claim. The council heard that it was more than justified because salaries in universities had declined seriously in comparison with the rest of the public sector.
The union has warned its members to prepare for industrial action and said the best time would be during the end-of-year examination period "where it is possible for both general and academic staff to exert maximum pressure on employers and the Commonwealth government".
Although the claim by university staff is larger than any being sought by workers in other sectors, NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch said it was realistic and did not include a "substantial amount of ambit".
Mr McCulloch said that beween September 1992 and October 1996 salaries of federal public servants would have increased by 15 per cent. In the same time, university staff would have received a 5.1 per cent rise so the proposed 15 per cent increase would ensure staff wages were not left behind when "the market moves again".
Union officials recently met with federal education minister Simon Crean and departmental bureaucrats to discuss what at the time was a proposed 8 per cent rise to be paid for from federal funds. This was in addition to a 2 per cent increase currently being negotiated on individual university campuses which is to come from institutional budgets.
Mr Crean agreed to take a submission to federal cabinet backing a pay increase provided enterprise bargaining negotiations at each university were successfully concluded. But the council decision to push for a 15 per cent rise could make Mr Crean's task of persuasion much harder.
Mr McCulloch said the union would offer concessions relating to staff appraisal and extended university hours, including a summer term, in return for a salaries boost. But he warned that members would not support any trade-offs that reduced permanent or tenured employment.
"A more streamlined staff appraisal system and the opportunity for the system to operate at greater capacity levels are both substantial productivity improvements," he said.
"We would be looking for two offsets in exchange: a significant pay rise and a commitment to regulate casual and contract employment."
The council meeting condemned university employers for allowing the continued "extreme exploitation of casual and fixed-term contract staff".
Council said the evidence clearly showed that current university employment practices discriminated against women by denying them equal access to job security.
Rejecting suggestions that continuing employment operated in any way to disadvantage women, the council declared it was the high incidence of casual and fixed-term appointments that kept women in junior classifications and insecure positions.