Australia's vice-chancellors have no idea what federal funding they will get after 2004 because of political opposition to the government's proposed changes in higher education funding and its industrial relations legislation.
A proposed A$1.5 billion (£618 million) funding boost that was to be paid in just over a year relies on the upper house passing legislation, whose key elements are opposed by a majority of senators.
Universities also face the loss of more than A$400 million a year unless they meet a range of hardline requirements, including placing staff on individual contracts, under changes to industrial legislation announced last week. The reforms, which have been widely condemned, aim to undermine the role of the main education union and its capacity to influence salary and conditions negotiations on every campus.
"What (the government) has proposed is illusory funding - linked to unworkable reforms that have the potential to be voted out of existence," said John Mullarvey, chief executive of the Australian Vice-Chancellors'
Committee. "When the reforms are rejected (by the senate), the funding ceases to exist as well."
He said universities had deals that provided employees with fair and flexible conditions. These had been hard won but would have to be renegotiated if the changes were adopted. "A unified call by the AVCC, university employees and unions that these reforms are unworkable and unfair should send a clear message to government that it is way off the mark," he said.
The National Tertiary Education Union said the changes were an unnecessary, unwarranted and costly interference in the running of universities and in the enterprise bargaining process.
NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch said half of Australia's 80,000 or so university employees already worked as casuals or were on short-term contracts. The requirement that all restrictions on the type of employment at universities be removed would casualise even more and drive high-quality staff to seek more secure jobs elsewhere.
"Just as important, the proposal will do nothing to resolve the real workplace issues facing university staff, such as rocketing student-to-staff ratios and mounting job insecurity," he said.
Mr McCulloch said the union would fight the changes with all the means at its disposal, adding that the NTEU national executive would soon decide on a national campaign, possibly including strikes, to oppose the reforms.
AVCC president Deryck Schreuder said the intrusive nature of the requirements would jeopardise university autonomy. Universities were already fostering the flexible work practices the government desired.