Union fights to reveal Aussie v-cs' fat salaries

December 14, 2001

The A$261,000 (£95,238) a year salary paid to Australian prime minister John Howard is dwarfed by the salary packages received by many of the nation's vice-chancellors, which are believed to exceed A$500,000.

But attempts by the National Tertiary Education Union to discover how much vice-chancellors across the country earn have often failed as universities refuse to release the information. The universities claim that revealing salary details would affect their ability to recruit top staff.

Depending on state acts of parliament, some university annual reports are required to indicate broadly the salary range of their senior staff. But superannuation, living and travelling expenses and bonuses are not included.

When they are, the vice-chancellors of the oldest universities, such as Sydney, Melbourne and Queensland, are believed to be earning in excess of A$500,000 a year.

Occasionally a university is forced to provide such information. In Western Australia, the local branch of the National Tertiary Education Union spent nine months in applications and appeals before forcing Murdoch University to reveal that vice-chancellor Stephen Schwartz was on a salary package totalling A$350,000 with benefits and bonuses.

Murdoch initially refused a union Freedom of Information (FOI)request seeking details of the packages of its top nine executives. The information finally came to light - but only after the union branch appealed to the state's privacy commissioner and the commissioner ordered the university to comply.

The union branch earlier discovered Murdoch's chancellery had received a 30 per cent increase in its budget allocation over the previous three years - at a time when academics were forced to make cuts. The union also found that the less involvement executives had with teaching and research, the greater their incomes.

After making claims for staff salary rises between 1996 and 2000, the union was told that large increases would threaten Murdoch's viability.

A settlement of a 12 per cent rise over four years was agreed, although it was later revealed that the vice-chancellor's package had increased by 62.5 per cent during that time while the deputy vice-chancellor's had risen by 31 cent.

In a judgment with ramifications for universities across Australia, the Western Australia commissioner dismissed Murdoch's arguments that releasing the salary details of the nine most senior officers would create a "them and us" division with other staff, or would have an adverse impact on management.

The commissioner agreed that providing such information would affect the privacy of the officials but ruled that it was in the public interest to make it available.

Three years ago, the union executive decided that its state branches should submit FOI requests to each university seeking details of the top earners. Most branches have not pursued the issue and instead have devoted their efforts to securing improved wages and conditions.

Union national research officer Julie Wells said: "The point is that vice-chancellors should not argue against modest wage increases for staff when their own salaries can increase quite dramatically and with little consultation.

"We are also concerned about the accountability of what remains a public institution - despite the deregulatory agendas of the government."

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