Cut pay for the greater good, Australian academics asked

Union members mount fightback as their leadership countenances pay cuts

April 17, 2020
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Australian academics are being asked to cut their pay, forego work or donate money to their employers, as the coronavirus pandemic rips hundreds of millions of dollars from university balance sheets.

La Trobe University has invited staff to consider voluntary contributions to help manage an earnings shortfall estimated at up to A$150 million (£76 million).

Vice-chancellor John Dewar stressed that the proposals were “entirely voluntary” and counselled staff to consider any impacts on their superannuation. “We cannot guarantee these measures will be enough to prevent the need for workforce changes, including stand down or even forced redundancies at some stage,” he added in a message to staff.

Options include payroll deductions, one-off donations, relinquished leave or leave loadings, reduced working hours and leave without pay.

UNSW Sydney vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs has made a similar appeal to staff as he grapples with an estimated A$600 million budget shortfall. Proposals at UNSW include cutting working hours, “purchasing” extra leave and accepting voluntary retirement.

“The impact of a large number of staff taking up these options could be significant in lessening UNSW’s financial difficulties – and therefore the number of job losses we have to consider,” Professor Jacobs told staff.

Executives at both universities have already accepted 20 per cent pay cuts as have their counterparts at other institutions. Many universities have deferred capital expenditure, banned travel, paused recruitment and stopped other forms of discretionary spending.

But both vice-chancellors warned that more savings were needed. Professor Jacobs said the government’s higher education relief package, announced on Easter Sunday, would “only slightly reduce” the shortfall.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has negotiated with universities to avert job losses. “Those discussions are going well,” education minister Dan Tehan told Sky News.

“If we can also get a good agreement between the sector and the NTEU, we should be able to see the sector carry most of its workforce through the next six months while it deals with the pandemic, and come out stronger on the other side.”

But The Guardian reported that NTEU members had balked at their national executive’s resolution to offer “concessions on pay” if necessary. Members warned that the relinquishment of hard-won salary enhancements would be difficult to reverse, “setting a terrible precedent for workers everywhere”.

The NTEU’s University of Melbourne branch committee resolved to reject any concessions on conditions or pay, and called for a 1 May national day of action. “We censure the national executive for undercutting our industrial and political response,” the motion says.

NTEU general secretary Matthew McGowan told The Guardian that the union had been forced to move quickly to protect jobs in a rapidly evolving crisis. “Workers are finding themselves out of work almost overnight, and our fear is that this is going to happen in universities very quickly.”

He said he welcomed the debate on the union’s position and would ensure that members were consulted widely.

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