Australian jobs protection agreement unravels

National vote called off, with vice-chancellors saying pact is too short-term while union blames ‘fear of scrutiny’

May 26, 2020

Australia’s academic union has abandoned plans for a nationwide pact to avert job losses, after more universities declined to participate.

The National Tertiary Education Union has called off a countrywide vote of its members on the proposed national jobs protection framework, with around half of universities now saying they will not proceed with the deal. Most others remain undecided.

The framework would allow universities to temporarily trim their workforce expenses in return for extra guarantees over the job security of their staff. Its negotiators envisaged that it would be applied at institutions where both management and staff approved it, once it had been endorsed in a national vote of NTEU members.

The union said it would now pursue votes only at the three institutions that had so far indicated support for the agreement – La Trobe, Monash and the University of Western Australia – along with any other institutions that decided to opt in.

NTEU president Alison Barnes said at least 17 universities had abandoned the agreement. The University of Wollongong is among the latest, with vice-chancellor Paul Wellings insisting that the framework “does not offer the best pathway…for a sustainable future”.

“[It] offers some important short-term reductions in pay and conditions for staff to help address the adverse financial impacts of the pandemic,” he said. “However, we must plan for a longer period of time [and] the framework restricts us from taking that view. We will be considering alternative approaches that allow us to protect jobs while positioning our organisation for the future.”

Dr Barnes said vice-chancellors had allowed “greed and fear of scrutiny” to derail the framework. “Already we are seeing the consequences…with hundreds of casual and fixed term staff losing their jobs right now, and yesterday Deakin announcing the first 400 ongoing jobs to go,” she added.

“The worst crisis in the history of Australian universities demanded a collective solution to save careers and livelihoods. Vice-chancellors are now baulking at the strong oversight provisions in the jobs framework that guarantee transparency. NTEU will now escalate to what will be historically high levels of industrial disputation and campaigning to fight for every job. This could have been avoided.”

The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, which helped construct the agreement, said it had been “negotiated in complete good faith on both sides”. But executive director Stuart Andrews said a “one-size-fits-all outcome” had always risked rejection by some universities.

“Some don’t want to impose pay cuts on their staff,” he said. “Others are concerned that the opposition being shown by other unions, and by elements of the NTEU itself, will result in the deal being defeated at staff votes.

“The national deal was always going to be a really big ask for both universities and university staff. Perhaps there are other possible industrial solutions that aren’t as complicated as this deal.”

Ironically, the national agreement unravelled on the day that prime minister Scott Morrison heralded a more accommodating approach to industrial relations on the back of the cooperative spirit that has emerged during the pandemic. “We must make the most of this time,” Mr Morrison told the National Press Club. “Groups will either reach something approaching consensus…or they won’t, but we’ve got to give it a go.”

The university framework was cited as evidence of that approach’s weakness, with a journalist demanding: “You talked a lot about the importance of getting people together to come to an agreement…[but] how can you guarantee that the deal will be stuck to – including in parliament?”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs