V-cs gain right to sack staff

May 5, 1995

Australian vice chancellors have greater power to sack staff following an Industrial Relations Commission decision.

The federal commission accepted proposals by the vice chancellors to simplify dismissal procedures after two years of dispute, including strikes and work bans, between universities and academics.

Under the new regulations, a vice chancellor has the sole authority to impose penalties, including dismissal in the case of serious misconduct. This compares with the former complex procedures that had to be followed when academics were charged with misconduct, unsatisfactory performance or whose positions had become redundant.

The commission rejected union arguments that internal tribunals set up to investigate claims of misconduct or unsatisfactory performance should continue to have the power to recommend what action should be taken. In future, the committees will only have an advisory or fact-finding role.

But the National Tertiary Education Union immediately warned that academics would take whatever action was necessary to protect themselves if vice chancellors seized the new powers to sack staff or impose redundancies.

Grahame McCulloch, union general secretary, said local branches would be far more aggressive in seeking job security guarantees during enterprise bargaining negotiations as a result of the long-awaited decision.

"The finding is a grave disappointment as it has confirmed the increasing trend towards central management authority in universities, at the expense of proper collegial processes," Mr McCulloch said.

"The power to make recommendations on penalties has been taken away from appropriately constituted collegial committees and handed to each vice chancellor. Based on experience, the union is not convinced that all vice chancellors will use these powers appropriately."

In 1993, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, which represents universities at the commission asked it to vary the industrial award covering academic working conditions so as to make it easier for vice chancellors to sack staff.

Russell Blackford, association executive director, said the changes would make the award more user-friendly. "We now have a more streamlined set of provisions, with the major difference being that the chief executive officer has the final say," he said.

Academics would still enjoy greater protection than in the private sector, Dr Blackford said. He dismissed as provocative union claims that collegial processes or academic freedom were threatened. "University employers have a strong commitment to protecting collegiality and the freedom of academics to propound and debate unpopular and controversial ideas," he said. "The reality is that tough management decisions must be made by the organisation's chief executive, not a committee of academics."

Mr McCulloch said that although the union was deeply disappointed with some aspects of the commission's decision, it was pleased several of its submissions had been adopted. He welcomed retention of the definitions of misconduct and serious misconduct from the old award, and the fact that an academic could only be dismissed if serious misconduct was proved.

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