The decision by Australian prime minister Paul Keating to call an election on March 2 has created a painful dilemma for the nation's 80,000 academics and general staff, writes Geoff Maslen.
They were in the middle of a confrontation with the Labor government over a claim for a minimum wage rise of 5.6 per cent, which the government had offered to provide but only on the basis that the universities would have to repay the money later.
Now, with a caretaker government in charge, the salary issue cannot be resolved in the short term and may not be settled for six months. With the conservative parties strongly tipped to win - they are ahead of Labor by up to 8 per cent in the opinion polls - the higher education unions face the prospect after the election of negotiating with a new, cost-cutting administration notably unsympathetic to the union movement.
The unions had already begun a campaign of industrial action to achieve a federally-funded wage increase with no strings attached. Staff at several universities had also threatened to disrupt student enrolments and impose administration bans as part of the campaign.
But the problem for the unions is that while they bitterly resent Labor's refusal to back their claim they do not want to be seen as supporting the Conservatives.
Union officials were stunned at the government's response to the demand for a salary increase. As they point out, active union support for Labor during the election could make a crucial difference to the outcome.
"I'm amazed that Simon Crean (federal education minister) let it come to this," one senior official said. "A few hundred votes in the marginal electorates are all that is needed to swing the election one way or the other."
Until 1987, Australia's academic unions had adopted a broadly neutral approach to which party deserved support in the pre-election advice they offered to members. But in the 1990 and 1993 elections, as the conservative parties moved further to the right and promised to make radical changes in higher education, the unions strongly backed the return of the Labor government.
That the unions now wield considerable influence with Labor was shown in the federal budget last May when the government incorporated six of eight proposals put forward by the National Tertiary Education Union into its allocations to universities.
Although the government can point to its record of financially backing a huge expansion in higher education over the past eight years - with a guaranteed commitment of further growth to 1998 - the debacle over the pay claim has alienated academics and will deter many from actively campaigning on its behalf.
The conservatives, on the other hand, have clearly indicated that they intend to exclude the unions as much as possible from political and industrial decision-making. As Mr Keating points out, the policies of the two main parties on industrial relations could hardly be more different - and will be highlighted frequently during the election.
Under Labor, Australia has moved to a managed system of productivity-based enterprise bargaining within an existing system of industrial awards and under the protection of the Industrial Relations Commission. Almost 7,000 agreements have been approved by the commission, including many already negotiated on university campuses.
But the opposition claims the processes are too slow and that the unions and the commission have excessive control over worker-employer bargaining. A conservative government would offer workers the choice of remaining within existing awards or moving to an employment contract negotiated with employers in which the commission and the unions would have little or no role to play.
The unions know they will be sidelined if opposition leader John Howard wins. And that is not an outcome they want - any more than having to confront a new Labor government which is likely to continue insisting that university staff should pay for their own wage rise.