Australia braced for national strike

October 17, 2003

The first national strike by higher education staff and students was expected to close or disrupt most of Australia's 40 universities this Thursday.

Tens of thousands of members of the four staff unions and two student associations were due to walk out in an unprecedented one-day protest against government reforms.

Picket lines and public meetings were planned across the country.

The government's new proposals will require universities to offer individual contracts to all employees and deny unions monetary support or office space for branch officials. In exchange, institutions would gain access to A$404 million (£168 million) in additional funding.

Although vice-chancellors did not back the strike, they expressed unanimous opposition to the proposed workplace reforms. But unlike the staff unions and students, they have supported the government's other proposals.

These include A$1.5 billion for expansion, top-up fees for undergraduates except those undertaking teaching and nursing courses, increases in the number of full-fee places for Australian students and a new system of interest-bearing loans.

But even the strongest proponent of fee deregulation, University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert, attacked the government over its industrial relations agenda. Professor Gilbert said the guidelines represented unwarranted intrusion into university autonomy and would only cause division between management and staff.

John Mullarvey, executive director of the Australian Vice-chancellors'

Committee, said vice-chancellors shared the concerns of all staff regarding the linking of the additional A$404 million to "unworkable industrial relations reforms" and called on the government to abandon the plan.

A spokesman for the ministry of education said the walk-out would not help the academics' cause.

"They should reflect long and hard on why they are proposing to have a strike, especially at the time of year when students are facing up to exams, submitting their assignments and undergoing the stress of wondering whether or not they will successfully complete the academic year," he said.

He suggested the average Australian would be baffled by the strike as the government proposals to give all academics the right to negotiate their own workplace agreement brought them into line with the working conditions that the rest of the country has had for more than a decade.

In a prelude to the nationwide strike, the University of Sydney was forced to close for a day last week when staff walked out in protest against vice-chancellor Gavin Brown's refusal to sign an agreement previously approved by unions and management.

Professor Brown cited government proposals for his decision as they would mean the agreement would have to be reviewed, a line other vice-chancellors were also taking while stalling on negotiations.

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