Job-saving plan stonewalled on two fronts at Sydney

Redundancies beckon at Australia’s oldest university as bosses and workers alike hold the line

May 13, 2020
stalemate deadlock no compromise
Source: iStock

Intransigence at both ends of the salary spectrum could scupper an agreement at Australia’s oldest university, squandering an opportunity to keep hundreds of people in work.

Under a “national jobs protection framework” negotiated with the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), universities would be permitted to temporarily cut staff work hours and pay rates if they took specified steps to minimise job losses during the coronavirus crisis.

The NTEU believes that the accord, to apply at universities where both management and staff endorse it and the Fair Work Commission ratifies it, could save the equivalent of 13,500 full-time jobs.

But the pay concessions are contingent on university executives accepting larger cuts than those foisted on staff. The leaders of some 15 universities have already vowed to cede part of their salaries, usually 20 per cent.

They include the four vice-chancellors who helped negotiate the agreement: Charles Sturt University’s Andy Vann, La Trobe’s John Dewar, Monash’s Margaret Gardiner and the University of Western Australia’s Jane den Hollander.

However, the University of Sydney announced in April that its executive salaries would be “held at current levels” – an approach branded “tone deaf” by NTEU president Alison Barnes.

At the time, the university said that its decision not to reduce executive remuneration was motivated by “protecting our staff” from the impacts of Covid-19. “When a leadership team takes a pay cut it can be seen as a symbolic action that expresses regret that they will have to take hard measures that impact on staff numbers, salary or entitlements,” a spokeswoman explained.

Asked if Sydney would now review the decision, to allow staff concessions to proceed, she said: “We don’t anticipate needing to make any further changes to our savings measures at this current time”.

The agreement already faced major obstacles at Sydney, where branch meetings of NTEU members had voted against concessions and censured the union leadership for pursuing them.

The university has also committed to fulfilling a 2.1 per cent staff salary increase due in July, even though the agreement allows for wage freezes.

University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones said that staff should not be expected to relinquish pay rises, and any such move should be “framed as a loan, not a gift”.

Dr Babones said that university staff, unlike executives, were not rewarded for revenue windfalls. “If academics took salary cuts in bad times without ever getting bonuses in good times, our salaries would consistently deteriorate,” he added.

He said that Sydney’s revenue downturn, estimated at A$470 million (£248 million) this year, was the result of management’s failure to wean the university off an over-reliance on Chinese students’ tuition fees. “It may become necessary for staff to make sacrifices, but let’s not forget where the responsibility lies,” he continued.

However, Dr Babones also criticised “unrealistic” demands from fellow staff who had displayed an “unwillingness to accept the serious financial consequences of the crisis” and who had insisted that – with academics now being directed to work remotely – the university should subsidise their home offices and “buy them five-point swivel office chairs”.

“I’m really shocked by the lack of cooperative spirit among colleagues,” he said. “It’s one thing to want to protect jobs. It’s another thing to make extravagant demands.

“In a time of crisis we all need to have a little bit of flexibility. It doesn’t matter who’s responsible. The fact is, the money isn’t there.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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