Australia's universities will face widespread disruption next year as the main staff union presses ahead with its campaign for a 19 per cent pay rise, writes Geoff Maslen.
Vice-chancellors believe that they cannot afford such an increase without cutting jobs. But the National Tertiary Education Union has told them that the salaries claim is non-negotiable and that its members will take industrial action to achieve it.
The University of Sydney has calculated that a 19 per cent boost to staff salaries over the next three years will add more than Aus$140 million (Pounds 53 million) to its annual wages bill - a 33 per cent increase on its projected salaries budget.
Pro vice-chancellor Michael Koder said:"It is difficult to imagine how this money could be found in the best of times. But in the current economic climate, this demand is unreasonable."
Professor Koder said the federal government had a policy of reducing its funding of higher education and shifting the burden to the private sector. Despite a cut in the government's operating grant of 6 per cent between 1997 and 2001, salaries at Sydney had risen 15 per cent above 1995 levels.
Across Australia, thousands of university jobs have been lost and workloads increased with bigger classes for the staff who remain. The NTEU believes that the salaries of academics and general staff should keep pace with those of their counterparts in research organisations and in the public sector.
In a repeat of its successful "leading-sites" policy adopted during the last round of negotiations, the union has nominated high-profile and relatively well-endowed universities to target with the full weight of its bargaining powers.
The University of Sydney is one of these, along with the universities of New South Wales and Melbourne.
Negotiations have already begun at all three institutions.