An industrial dispute at the University of Sydney has become “an all- out ideological battle between different visions of the university”, an academic has claimed.
Sydney-based members of Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union staged a two-day strike on 26 and March, after a one-day walkout earlier last month.
At issue is the university’s draft of its latest “enterprise agreement”: a document, periodically renegotiated with unions, that governs employment conditions for academic and non-academic staff. The union objects to changes that would, it says, erode conditions, and also to the offer of a 2 per cent pay rise rather than the 7 per cent it initially demanded.
The strikes come after unrest in 2011 and 2012 when Sydney threatened to make redundant up to 150 academics who had published fewer than four papers in the previous three years.
According to Nick Riemer, a senior lecturer in English at Sydney and a member of the union’s branch committee, the current dispute stems in part from Sydney’s continuing commitment to such “change management” procedures, with the new enterprise agreement giving it more freedom to cut jobs.
Describing the agreement as “an unapologetic charter for a new era of managerial radicalism”, he said that the dispute was not principally about pay and conditions but rather “core intellectual and educational values”. It had “taken on the contours of an all-out ideological battle between different visions of the university and its relation to other parts of society, particularly the economy”.
He said this feeling had been heightened by the removal of all references to intellectual freedom from the original draft agreement - although the resulting outcry had led to their reinstatement.
Dr Riemer’s concerns were echoed by Raewyn Connell, a professor in Sydney’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. In an open letter to Michael Spence, Sydney’s vice-chancellor, she complained of increased casualisation, micromanagement, monitoring and a decline in “organisational democracy”.
“It appears that the university authorities these days don’t really trust the staff - to know our trades, to act responsibly, or to share in running the place,” she writes.
“It’s not encouraging to see university managers across the country increasingly resembling the executives of big corporations - in pay and conditions, in language, in techniques of running an organisation, and in hard-handed approaches to the workforce.”
In response, Dr Spence wrote that shrinking public funding required universities to do more with less. But he said that the proportion of casual academic staff at Sydney had declined by nearly 5 per cent since 2001 while staff-student ratios had “not noticeably increased” in recent years.
He also insisted that academics had become more involved in decision- making and had retained “appropriately high levels” of autonomy: “the challenge is to balance that autonomy with the accountability that is an inevitable feature of contemporary public life”.
The union’s wage demands were “unaffordable”, he added.
Dr Riemer said the level of disruption caused by the strikes had exceeded the union’s expectations.
“For many staff what’s essentially involved is a question of trust, but persuading them to have confidence in the management that tried to sack so many people last year will be an uphill battle,” he said.