More Australian universities spurn jobs deal

Job security guarantees would tie management’s hands while offering only short-term cost relief, v-cs say

May 25, 2020
Deakin University logo

Deakin University has become the latest institution to reject a jobs preservation pact constructed by Australia’s academic union and the body that represents universities on industrial relations matters.

Vice-chancellor Iain Martin said Deakin would not pursue the jobs protection framework, negotiated by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, because it did not fit the university’s longer-term rescue plan.

“We are mapping out a future…that must consider not just 2020 but also the next three to five years,” Professor Martin said. “Our council is responsible for setting the overall strategic pathway and the framework will constrain its ability to decide what is in the best short, medium and longer-term interests of the university.”

Deakin has also flagged the abolition of 400 jobs, 300 of which have current incumbents, as part of a change proposal go to staff for consultation. The university said the proposal represented a cut of about 3 per cent of its workforce amid a 14 per cent revenue downturn this year.

The jobs protection framework enables universities to reduce some of their salary costs, by cutting employees’ hours and pay rates for example, in return for certain job security guarantees. It can only be applied at institutions where both management and staff approve it after it gets the green light from this week’s scheduled national vote of NTEU members.

At least nine other universities have already ruled out pursuing the deal, with UNSW Sydney and Central Queensland University (CQU) advising staff to this effect on 22 May.

CQU vice-chancellor Nick Klomp said the framework would have provided only “short term” financial benefits, primarily from enforced pay cuts and reduced working hours – measures the university did not intend taking anyway. He said the university must focus on “long-term success and sustainability rather than temporary cost reduction”.

NTEU Queensland state secretary Michael McNally said CQU had “opted for job cuts over job security”, in a “slap in the face” for staff who had offered to forgo work and hours to save colleagues’ jobs. “Our members will be devastated by the decision of [Professor] Klomp to cut deeper and sooner than he had to.”

The Australian Catholic University, University of Technology Sydney and Edith Cowan, Flinders, Melbourne, Newcastle and Sydney universities have also rejected the approach.

A meeting of UNSW’s NTEU branch reportedly also rebuffed the idea, with 70 per cent opposed. Branches at La Trobe, Melbourne, RMIT and Sydney are among others understood to have emphatically rejected the approach.

So far the most solid management support has come from a group of four vice-chancellors who helped negotiate the framework: Charles Sturt University’s Andrew Vann, La Trobe’s John Dewar, Monash’s Margaret Gardiner and University of Western Australia (UWA) interim head Jane den Hollander.

La Trobe, Monash and UWA intend to sign up to the framework if their staff approve it. Lead negotiator Professor Vann has been more circumspect, saying he expected his university’s governing council to make its final decision this week.

Professor Martin said Deakin’s recovery from the pandemic would not be “V-shaped”, and it would pursue long-term borrowings and cost savings “rather than simply seeking to get to a notionally balanced budget over the next 12 months”.

He outlined a two-pronged approach of “spending appreciably more than we earn over the next 18-36 months”, while cutting costs through “a systematic whole of university budget sustainability project” including a “phased approach to staff reductions”.

He said neither approach would work in isolation because the recovery would take longer than borrowings or reserves could sustain, while cutting costs too deeply would leave Deakin too weak to recover.

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