Universities across Australia are facing their worst industrial upheaval in more than ten years as academics and general staff push for a 19 per cent pay rise.
Stoppages and strikes have already disrupted universities in three states, and industrial action is expected to spread as staff pressure university managers to agree to their terms. Academics at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales went on a three-day strike while a stoppage at University of Melbourne lasted 24 hours.
In a surprise move, Melbourne gave its staff a 2.6 per cent wage increase outside the bargaining framework. But the university insists that any further rises are conditional on income generation and productivity savings.
Academics were urged to support last month's student-led national day of protest against the federal government's policies on higher education. The negative reaction to the leak of a cabinet submission on university funding by education minister David Kemp boosted protest support.
The government's offer of a one-off injection of Aus$259 million (Pounds 102 million) over three years would allow vice-chancellors to meet the costs of a 2 per cent pay rise, but the money will only go to universities that abide by rule changes on non-union agreements, contract employment and redundancy and dismissal.
The pay campaign is spearheaded by the National Tertiary Education Union. The campaign includes bans on marking examinations and releasing results at universities where negotiations have lasted three months or more.
Sydney became the first university last month to sign an agreement with the NTEU for a 14.7 per cent pay rise over three years, with no job losses and a promise of an inquiry into staff workloands. It seems likely the union will accept an offer made last Friday by the University of Newcastle for a 12.7 per cent increase.
NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch said employers were "dragging their feet". Mr McCulloch said many branches would be taking industrial action unless more progress was made.
"Imposing bans is not something we do lightly but we are being forced into this position by the refusal of the government to help," he said.
"The University of Sydney has proved a satisfactory agreement can be reached and we would welcome actions by the wiser and more mature vice-chancellors to follow its lead - if only a few of them had the courage."
But Don McNicol, president-elect of the vice-chancellors' industrial arm, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, said the bans would "hold students hostage" to union demands and send the wrong message to the community.
He said universities had been serious in their bargainings and approached this round "with a serious eye on outcomes both in terms of improved salaries and the future of higher education".
Some vice-chancellors thought agreement could be reached but were wary, he said. "That says something about the culture of intimidation the government's policy has engendered among senior management in our universities."