Strikes spread across Australian universities

Enrolments down and activism up, as staff brace for job losses and management prepares for shutdowns

September 19, 2022
Unsupervised students
Source: iStock

A proposed restructure at a Queensland university could remove more than 10 per cent of its professional staff, as rising costs and “hyper-competition” for students fuel industrial strife across Australia.

James Cook University (JCU) has begun formal consultation on its plan to jettison 93 permanent and contracted staff and scrap another 52 unfilled positions, as it strives to “build a sustainable future”.

The university said that the proposal had been necessitated by a long-standing “structural deficit”, years of enrolment declines and a “hypercompetitive environment” following pandemic lockdowns.

Vice-chancellor Simon Biggs said JCU faced “intense competition from capital city universities” just as enthusiasm for tertiary study was waning among school-leavers in its northern Queensland base. “We are living beyond our means,” he said.

“The university is taking responsible actions to address our financial challenges. We plan to rebuild our revenue and manage our costs, through a combination of targeted student load growth and efficient business operations.”

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) labelled the plan “devastating”. Queensland secretary Michael McNally said it was no coincidence that the proposal had emerged during bargaining for a new enterprise agreement.

“I am not sure how this cutting mentality will turn around the performance of JCU. Why is the plan always to cut more staff?” he said.

Enterprise agreement negotiations have proven acrimonious across the sector, as the union demands pay increases in line with decades-high inflation. Members at nine universities have secured the right to take “protected” industrial action, with employees from at least three more institutions – including JCU – moving to join them.

Staff say they are fed up with negotiations that have lingered for up to two years, and pay rise offers well below Australia’s 6.1 per cent inflation rate. Actions under consideration range from banning the transmission of assessment results to stopping work indefinitely and – in one case – answering all emails in capitals and without punctuation.

Staff at the universities of Sydney and Queensland have already held strikes, with colleagues at the universities of Newcastle and Canberra planning to follow suit.

“The decision to strike and lose pay isn’t one taken lightly,” said Damian Cahill, who has secured the position of NTEU general secretary in a fiercely fought union election. “But at unis across the country management are refusing reasonable proposals by staff for secure jobs, workload regulation, gender affirmation leave, protections against workplace restructuring and a fair pay rise.”

The union has also pressured universities to pay casual staff for work that had been scheduled on 22 September, which has now been declared a public holiday to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s death. At least 11 institutions have agreed to do so, but some on the proviso that the work cannot be rescheduled.

Universities appreciate the need to be seen as sympathetic employers of their sessional staff, amid more findings that casuals have been systematically underpaid – most recently at the University of Newcastle and Charles Sturt University.

JCU says it does not expect its restructure proposal to directly affect “overall casual staffing”. It says its plans include the establishment of 30 new positions, alleviating the overall impact on jobs.

The university says its student load eroded by 13 per cent between 2015 and 2021, with “further decline” this year, while an increasing share of its students learn at partner institutions “where the funding margin to JCU is lower”.

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