The Guardian 12 October, 2005


Fighting for
the future of our universities

That the Federal Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, has resorted to public insults in the pitched battle with the National Union of Students over Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) is a tribute to the students’ activism and the level of organisation of their campaign. His vitriol came after he cancelled his attendance at a schooling conference at the University of Sydney late last month where he was scheduled to speak.

Students took "non-violent, disruptive action" at the university outside the "Schooling for the 21st Century" conference. Even though the NSW police judged the demonstration as "low risk" — there were no physical confrontations and no arrests — Nelson clearly used it as a pretext to attack the students and university management on the radio program of right-wing commentator John Laws.

So, instead of speaking at the conference — or indeed having the courage to face the students themselves — Nelson used Laws’ poisonous podium to hurl insults at those who oppose his government’s agenda to privatise public education. Calling student activists "mongrels", the Minister for Education crawled into the gutter with Laws who in turn labelled the protestors "a bunch of filthy students that are probably there on somebody else’s money all doing arts courses".

While Nelson hit the airwaves to hurl insults at students, on the ground at university campuses the Federal Government’s stand-over tactics are aimed at undermining the very nature of universities.

Under the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements, Government is cutting university budgets by $280 million unless university managements sign up to vicious workplace relation conditions.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) notes that, although the Howard Government provides only 40 percent of university revenue, it wants 100 percent control of university workplace relations.

The Federal Government is hell bent on taking Australian universities down the free market US model. As part of its privatisation agenda it is undermining the conditions of employment of staff that are currently protected under collective agreements. These conditions include academic freedom, limits on casualisation and the undermining of job security; conditions which underpin the quality of our universities. Its actions are a direct attack on the independence of universities. The Howard Government is now telling universities what to do in terms of employment of staff, interfering with management processes, and the normal running of universities. The NTEU rightly points out that no other Australian employer will have its funding cut if it does not kow-tow to such bullying.

This draconian legislation will also be applied retrospectively. As the union puts it, the Federal Government is not just moving the goal posts — it is cutting them down.

Universities should not be forced to trade academic independence and integrity in order to receive a component of their funding from the Federal Government as a lure to force industrial change.

In 2003, Parliament allocated funds for universities for 2005-2007. Those funding arrangements are now being torn up. The Government is also forcing universities to tear up existing certified agreements to strip staff of entitlements, rights and protections already agreed.

About half of the universities — those where there are current enterprise agreements — will have to have a "complying" agreement by August next year or they will lose 7.5 percent of their funding in 2007. At all other universities, where agreements are still being negotiated, enterprise agreements will have to meet the Government’s requirements by September 2005 or they will lose five percent of their funding in 2006 and 7.5 percent in 2007.

In effect the Federal Government wants agreements to be written at its direction, and universities to renege on matters already agreed. This represents another huge attack on university independence and the rights of university staff.

Under this regime, all new staff employed after April this year must be offered the government’s non-union Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), and all existing staff must be offered AWAs by August 2006.

The Federal Government wants universities to use AWAs to cut employment conditions to below the minimum standard set in enterprise agreements and awards.

As it rams through its privatising agenda the government will continue to run up against the education unions and the national student organisation that are determined to defend and maintain universities as public institutions benefiting the whole of Australia, and for future generations to have access to tertiary education.

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