Industrial relations are in the balance following the withdrawal of five of Australia's biggest universities from their national negotiating arm and the resignation of its chief executive, Russell Blackford.
Vice-chancellors of Melbourne, Monash, Sydney, New South Wales and Queensland universities have quit the Australian Higher Educational Industrial Association.
They plan to use their annual Aus$70,000 (Pounds ,000) subscription on their own legal fees in the next round of staff pay bargaining. The decision means the loss of more than Aus$300,000 from the association's Aus$1.5 million budget. That and the resignation of Dr Blackford, who has not yet been replaced, will seriously affect operations and reduce the board's effectiveness as the universities' national industrial champion.
The National Tertiary Education Union, which represents academic staff in negotiations with the AHEIA, is mounting a campaign this year for a 19 per cent pay rise for staff.
The union's national executive, which exercises central control over wage negotiations on each campus, last year successfully campaigned for a 12 per cent salary rise.
The AHEIA was formally accredited by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to represent universities in negotiations with unions over pay and conditions. It is governed by a board of five vice-chancellors, elected by their colleagues.
But Dr Blackford said that despite the loss of five universities, the AHEIA would still have a key role to play in the industrial system.
John Niland, president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, is also vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, one of the dissenting five.
He rejected suggestions that the decision by the five to quit the association would affect the work of the AVCC or its efforts to win greater government funding to meet the union's latest pay claim.
"We will continue to seek wage supplementation for all universities," he said.
AHEIA president Cliff Blake said the decision was unfortunate "when the sector is facing major industrial challenges". The resignations were indicative of dissatisfaction with the centralised industrial relations system dominated by national awards and uniform approaches to enterprise bargaining.
"This 'one size fits all' approach has to go," he said. "We hope the five universities will still be willing to enter into dialogue with AHEIA concerning strategies to free up the higher education industrial environment."