As the academic year began in Australia last week, students who turned up for classes at the universities of Sydney and New South Wales found their lecturers had gone on strike.
In the first skirmish of what is certain to be a drawn-out battle between the higher education union and vice-chancellors, academics at the two universities walked out, for one and two days respectively, in protest over management's latest pay offer - a 2 per cent increase - and heavier workloads.
The National Tertiary Education Union has called for a 19 per cent salary rise over three years, with no job cuts and improved workloads. The claim has been dismissed by vice-chancellors as unaffordable.
Staff at the two Sydney universities and at the Australian National University have been offered performance pay in lieu of annual salary increments and a small rise in their incomes. The universities have also proposed abandoning existing dismissal processes, scrapping study leave and removing consultation over management decisions.
The NTEU described the offers as insulting and warned that more industrial action was likely. Staff at the UNSW are considering a week-long strike in May during the handing down of the federal budget, while union branches from 15 universities will meet on March 31 to discuss industrial action.
Addressing a strike rally in Sydney, NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch said the action was not just about salary rises but also working conditions and job security. He said a government cut of Aus$800 million (Pounds 308 million) to higher education spending over three years had caused substantial damage to Australia's universities.