Jobs on the line as Australian sector bleeds billions

Academic union faces member fightback over détente with university administrations

May 12, 2020
Boat crew come to grief during the Semi Finals of the Open Boat Race, Kurrawa Beach, Surfers ParadIse, Australia
Source: Getty

Job security is emerging as the key battleground as Australian universities strive to offset the billions of dollars the Covid-19 crisis is costing them.

Universities are scrapping construction and refurbishment plans, and deferring discretionary spending. Institutions are also are courting the banks, those with contingency funds are raiding them and every institution is eyeing its cash reserves.

Those reserves totalled A$4.6 billion (£2.4 billion) across the sector at the end of 2018. Representative body Universities Australia estimates that its members could lose that sum this year alone – a likely underestimate. With just 20 of Australia’s 40 universities having outlined their projected losses, the combined tally so far is A$3.6 billion to A$4 billion with bigger losses anticipated next year. More savings will be needed.

Salaries, universities’ biggest cost, are an obvious target. Executives at many universities have taken temporary pay cuts, typically 20 per cent, and some have invited staff to do likewise. Staff have also been asked to consider cutting their hours, relinquishing claims for time off in lieu, retiring early and even making salary contributions to their employers.

UNSW Sydney vice-chancellor Ian Jacobs said that while more than 1,000 staff had agreed to cut their hours or accept early retirement, those concessions would yield just A$13 million of the A$600 million UNSW expects to lose this year alone. Stand-downs and “a reduction in staff numbers” are inevitable, he warned staff.

Casual and fixed-term jobs are first in the line of fire, with many institutions implementing recruitment freezes and reducing spending on casuals.

RMIT University jettisoned hundreds of casual staff on 17 April, according to Nine Media, with La Trobe University doing the same for non-essential casual workers a fortnight later.

A survey of more than 100 UNSW casuals in early April found that more than a quarter had already lost work this year, forfeiting an average A$626 of their weekly income.

To stem the bleeding, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is trying to negotiate a “national jobs protection framework” to obtain safeguards that are unavailable under current university enterprise agreements and industrial relations legislation.

Top of the union’s wish list is averting stand-downs without pay. It also wants external appointments stopped, fixed-term contracts renewed, redundancies applied only where work is ceasing permanently and casuals given priority in redeployment, along with other safeguards.

In return, the NTEU would limit restrictions on universities’ ability to save money through deferring pay rises and promotions, cutting work hours and changing staff duties.

“We are doing everything we can to save every job we can,” the union explained in its Sentry magazine, warning that as many as 30,000 positions were at stake. “Our sector is facing an unprecedented crisis.”

But while universities publicly proclaim their determination to limit job losses, they avoid specifying numbers or explaining what a “hiring freeze” might mean for limited-term staff who – in ordinary circumstances – might expect their contracts to be renewed.

Insiders complain of the “rugged individualism” of vice-chancellors who – they suspect – are hiding their tracks while jettisoning as many casual and fixed-term staff as possible, and deferring redundancy plans pending the outcome of the negotiations.

And while a 24 April meeting of more than 100 NTEU councillors overwhelmingly endorsed the negotiations, furious academics have formed an “NTEU Fightback” group to galvanise members’ opposition when the proposals are put to a vote.

The group says the union leadership “rides roughshod” over members’ objections, providing scant detail while it pursues measures that will do little if anything to help casuals or prevent stand-downs or redundancies.

It says key concessions being offered by the union executive – a 10 per cent cut to pay rates, on top of a 10 per cent cut in working hours – would cost the average staffer A$245 a week. A petition opposing concessions has attracted almost 900 signatories from 34 universities and other institutions. “Workers in the most cash-strapped institutions, who are the most likely to be stood down, would actually benefit least from this deal,” the group says.

“Since way back, staunch unionists have known: we should never give up conditions without a fight. We should reject these attacks, loud and clear.”


Print headline: Across Australian sector bleeding billions, jobs are on the line

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