Australia's higher education system is facing massive disruption as unions renew their campaign for substantial pay rises. Staff believe that the new coalition government, which has announced cuts of Aus$8 billion (Pounds 4 billion) from the federal budget over the next two years, will refuse to meet the cost of a 5.6 per cent salary increase proposed by the former Labor government. With the higher education unions now demanding bigger rises, widespread industrial action seems inevitable.
Academics at the Australian National University and the University of Canberra have already imposed bans on classes, and have refused to carry out certain administrative tasks. The main higher education union, the National Tertiary Education Union, is seeking a 15 per cent rise but has not authorised industrial action until it meets new education minister, Amanda Vanstone. Even if paid over two years, as the union proposes, the increase would add more than $500 million to annual federal grants to univer-sities.
Unions representing general staff are seeking an immediate 8.6 per cent rise but are preparing for a campus-by-campus campaign.
The vice chancellors are alarmed at these moves but are even more worried by the prospect of cuts. Fay Gale, president of the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee said that if the government reduced spending on higher education it would inevitably result in a reduction in the number of places.
"There would be a serious impact on the quality of teaching and research if they attempted to maintain or increase numbers while the government was cutting funding," Professor Gale said.
She believes that the Labor government's guarantee of further expansion of student numbers up to 1998 should be maintained. Universities had developed courses and planned their operations on the basis of expected funding and student demand for the next three years.
"If the government were to change the basis on which courses are created and developed, the planning system of universities throughout Australia would be in chaos," Professor Gale said.
Professor Gale had earlier proposed that the AVCC call on the government to freeze the planned expansion to avoid cuts in recurrent grants. But fellow vice chancellors objected saying that the AVCC executive had not discussed it.
There are fears that the government's expenditure review committee will seek to slash $1 billion from the higher education budget, possibly by making students pay up to a third of the cost of a degree, limiting access to the student support programme and eliminating discretionary spending.