Wages victory is a mixed blessing

October 5, 2001

The THES reports on how academics around the world fight their corner on pay.

University staff unions in Australia now negotiate directly with institutions over wages and conditions. Academics are better paid but government cuts mean universities are in crisis.

Central wage-fixing had been part of Australia's industrial landscape for a century until a Labor government scrapped the system in 1995 and replaced it with local workplace agreements.

In March 1996, the conservative coalition parties won a landslide victory. Vice-chancellors and staff were appalled when prime minister John Howard slashed higher education spending by A$800 million (£266 million).

The coalition reduced the power of the Industrial Relations Commission over worker-employer bargaining and restricted union involvement. The government introduced workplace contracts, allowing employees to opt out of union-negotiated awards.

The National Tertiary Education Union, which opposed the changes, was sidelined. Instead, before each round of negotiations, the union fixed a minimum set of wage rises and monitored discussions between its university branches and local management.

This "pattern-bargaining" was opposed by the government and the vice-chancellors' industrial arm, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association. Yet the union has been successful in boosting salaries over the past three bargaining rounds.

It has been less successful in maintaining working conditions. To pay for the initial wage rises, universities cut jobs and 3,000 positions disappeared. Workloads increased as the remaining academics had to work longer hours.

And while the union achieved minimum wage rises, some universities could afford to pay more.

NTEU general secretary Graeme McCulloch said: "The poorer and smaller institutions will find it more difficult to attract qualified staff - and qualified students. So they will have their relatively low status reinforced."

On the positive side, Mr McCulloch said: "Contrary to the expectations of the proponents of enterprise bargaining, it has not weakened the unions' role... we are more effective now at fixing a minimum price for labour."

This riles vice-chancellors. AHEIA chief executive Ian Argall said university managers preferred to deal with wage at a local level.

Despite their differences, vice-chancellors and the unions agree that higher education needs more public funding.

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