Australian university-staff accord ‘will save 12,000 jobs’

Bitter internal conflict brews over union plan to offer pay concessions in return for employment safeguards

May 13, 2020

At least 12,000 job losses could be averted if universities and their staff endorse a “landmark” agreement to curtail the damage from the Covid-19 crisis, Australia’s academic union says.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has released details of its “national jobs protection framework”, which would allow temporary variations to universities’ enterprise agreements – including year-long staff pay cuts of up to 15 per cent – in return for stronger employment safeguards.

The union says the concessions are needed to prevent “mass sackings that would have seen careers derailed and livelihoods destroyed”. Its approach “ensures that the strong look after the more vulnerable because that’s what a union does”.

But sceptics say the proposed agreement, to be applied at institutions where both university leaders and local union members endorse it, is “far from the promised life jacket” and will “have us drowning in concessions”.

The framework, which the NTEU executive negotiated with a group of vice-chancellors, would allow salary cuts of between 5 and 10 per cent for most affected staff and 15 per cent at “deeply affected universities”, in return for a moratorium on involuntary stand downs without pay.

Pay cuts could only be implemented after vice-chancellors and senior university executives had accepted bigger reductions than those inflicted on staff. Employees on low wages would be quarantined from the cuts.

Redundancies would only be permissible “in cases where a university can explicitly prove there is no work”, the NTEU said. Displaced casual and fixed-term staff would be prioritised for new work, and superannuation and leave would accrue as normal.

A draft memorandum of understanding also obliges universities to ensure that courses moved online during the crisis are returned to face-to-face delivery by 2022, unless remote teaching has been approved by the usual academic governance processes.

NTEU president Alison Barnes said that there were “no perfect options” in an emergency such as the pandemic. “Our union has intervened to put income security and fairness at the centre of a national response,” she continued.

“It is now incumbent on the commonwealth government to come to the table with a crisis funding package. Our universities should be researching Covid-19 therapies and training the next generation of nurses, paramedics and doctors.”

The details have emerged after a task force of science leaders warned that the equivalent of 21,000 full-time university staff face unemployment over the next six months. La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar, one of the university leaders who negotiated the deal, said that it could generate enough savings to preserve 200 La Trobe jobs this year and more in 2021.

“We can all contribute to saving as many jobs as possible,” he told staff. “None of us want to see job losses on this or any scale.”

But the NTEU Fightback group, which is marshalling opposition among union members, highlighted shortcomings in the framework.

“‘Everyone gets a lifeline’ is clearly a lie,” the group insisted in a Facebook post, criticising a lack of explicit protections for casual staff – many of whom have already lost their jobs – or safeguards against universities staging restructures or abolishing courses to justify “mass redundancies”.

The group has organised an “urgent meeting” late on 13 May to encourage members to veto the proposals, which could be voted on this week. The NTEU says “all members will be given a say”.

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