Melbourne rejects job protection deal

Australian universities decline union-sponsored agreement, citing individual circumstances and governance concerns

May 15, 2020
The University of Melbourne - the top ranked institution in Australia
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The University of Melbourne has joined a groundswell of Australian institutions in rejecting a jobs protection pact with the academic union.

Melbourne said it was “not in the best interests of the university” to pursue the “national jobs protection framework” negotiated by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association and four vice-chancellors.

The deal, which must be approved by individual institutions and their employees, would permit temporary variations to enterprise agreements. Universities would be allowed to compel staff to take leave, cut their hours, accept pay reductions of up to 15 per cent and relinquish incremental increases to their salaries.

In return, universities would provide extra guarantees of job security such as committing not to stand staff down without pay.

But Melbourne said it was not contemplating stand downs, forced reduction of hours or substantial pay cuts. “In this period of heightened uncertainty and concern, the university sees no purpose in asking staff to vote on a range of potential measures which the university has no intention of pursuing,” it said in a letter to the NTEU, seen by Times Higher Education.

Melbourne’s governing body also believes the agreement’s requirements conflict with its responsibility “to manage and control the affairs of the university”.

“The university shares many of the underlying principles and concerns of the union,” Melbourne said in a media statement. “We remain committed to working collaboratively with the union and our workforce…to fend off the real and present risk to jobs and the viability and success of the university.”

The Australian Catholic University (ACU) has rejected the deal for somewhat similar reasons. “It would mean surrendering control of our response to the Covid crisis to an external body, the ‘national expert panel’,” vice-chancellor Greg Craven told staff.

“This is completely inconsistent with the legal and other responsibilities of the university senate.”

ACU says it is less exposed to the pandemic’s impacts than institutions such as Melbourne, which has estimated a A$500 million (£264 million) revenue downturn this year, because it has far fewer international students.

Professor Craven said his institution would “manage its own response to Covid, tailored to our own circumstances. ACU is in a relatively good position compared to most other universities.”

The NTEU believes that if the agreement is adopted at every university, it could save the equivalent of 13,500 full-time jobs. The union is particularly worried about the prospects for casual and fixed-term staff.

However, opponents within the union question whether the framework provides real safeguards, while some institutional leaders question its necessity. The University of Technology Sydney, which says it faces a revenue shortfall of up to A$190 million this year, says it is “seeking to protect staff pay” and can manage its financial problems “without across-the board cuts to anyone’s remuneration”.

Macquarie, Murdoch and the universities of Southern Queensland, Sydney and the Sunshine Coast also appear unlikely to back the deal.

Sydney’s strategy for addressing its revenue losses, estimated at A$470 million this year, includes saving A$93 million by reviewing casual staffing budgets and restricting “new hires for continuing or fixed-term staff”.

Representative body Universities Australia said individual institutions would “need to look at the details” of the agreement and “decide if they will take part, based on their own unique circumstances”.

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Reader's comments (2)

$470m loss would require a much deeper cut to budgets and so a better way forward would be to take out a loan.
Melbourne's estimated loss for 2020 has now been reduced to $400m.


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