Union alarm over Oz cash

October 22, 1999

MELBOURNE. A key element of Australian education minister David Kemp's leaked proposals for reform survived this week's mauling in cabinet and provoked anger among academic union leaders.

Mr Howard announced an additional Aus$259 million (Pounds 100 million) over three years for universities which break with existing industrial relations policies, adding that greater salary justice could not be delivered if academics continued to embrace "Neanderthal industrial relations practices".

Dr Kemp's submission said the capacity of universities to respond flexibly to emerging student and employer demand was "hamstrung by continuing workplace rigidities, by the retention of unwieldy governance structures and by the persistence of a National Tertiary Education Union-dictated pattern bargaining agenda". The union is demanding a 19 per cent salary increase.

Non-union agreements, individual contracts for academics, and lifting restrictions on the hours worked by academics and general staff were "desirable objectives" identified in Dr Kemp's paper.

NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch said: "This money is just a bribe for union-bashing."

Vice-chancellors welcomed the decision to keep the Higher Ecucation Contributions Scheme and reject real interest rates on loans. A spokesman said the government had to address the deeper problems of under-funding accurately assessed in the submission.

Before the last federal election, Dr Kemp said the government had ruled out deregulating fees and had no intention of introducing a voucher system of funding - a promise reaffirmed by Mr Howard during the campaign. But in his largely rejected submission he proposed a "demand-driven system characterised by fee and admissions deregulation, improved quality assurance arrangements, a universal public subsidy for undergraduates in a broad range of accredited institutions and a loans scheme to finance the costs of tuition".

The document noted that universities faced severe funding problems with at least eight apparently running at a deficit and some regional institutions at risk of financial collapse.

Student numbers, course choices and the price of higher education would be determined more closely by student demand, with government providing a standard subsidy, linked to discipline-specific teaching costs.

"The current HECS system would be abolished. Income-contingent government loans (with interest rates set at market levels) repayable through the tax system would be available instead to finance the cost of tuition."

Labor's education spokesman, Michael Lee, claimed that under the plans, young people would be forced to choose between a

university degree and buying a house.

A student enrolling on a four-year course with a government loan would take 28 years to pay off his debt - by which time his interest bill would have exceeded Aus$60,000 (Pounds 23,000) for a course costing Aus$40,000.

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