The Guardian March 1, 2000


Staff and unions fight university privatisation

Staff at a number of universities around Australia have embarked on 
strike action in support of decent salaries, job security and properly 
funded universities. Their action comes as the Federal Government is trying 
to force them onto individual employment contracts and rob them of job 
security and award conditions, part of the government's main strategy to 
privatise tertiary education.

Both general and academic staff, members of the National Tertiary Education 
Union (NTEU), are involved in the actions.

Strikes last week at the University of New England (NSW) and University of 
South Australia were well supported. Next week staff at the University of 
Newcastle in NSW are due to go out for five days beginning on March 6, and 
staff at RMIT in Victoria will strike on March 7.

The NTEU is seeking a minimum, properly funded, pay rise of 13 per cent 
over three years.

Federal Education Minister Dr David Kemp has held out the possibility of a 
totally inadequate increase in funding that would only cover a wage rise of 
two per cent.

The additional funding would be restricted to universities implementing 
Kemp's Workplace Reform Programme.

Before a university could qualify for the small increase in funding it 
would have to meet a set of guidelines.

Under these guidelines enterprise agreements must provide for AWAs 
(individual employment contracts).

At present most NTEU agreements prohibit the employer from offering AWAs. 
Kemp's conditions for additional funding make it obligatory to not only 
permit AWAs but to allow for them to override collective agreements.

Universities would also be permitted to make acceptance of AWAs with secret 
contents a condition of employment for new employees, for promotion for 
existing employees, and for re-employment for contract and casual employees 
renewing contracts.

These and a number of other requirements would allow universities to 
casualise their staff, vary wage rates within or between departments, and 
introduce instant dismissal or retrenchments at one day's notice.

Universities would be forced to include non-unionists in negotiating union 
agreements and remove any clauses which facilitate the effective 
representation of staff through their unions.

To get the first 12 months' funding when this regime has been put in place 
universities would have to submit all certified agreements covering 
academic staff, and all accompanying documentation, to show how the 
agreements meet specified criteria in the guidelines.

All criteria must be met to qualify for the money.

Then further applications must be made for the following two years by 
providing evidence of progress in implementing "workplace reform"  
meaning the stripping away of conditions and job security, reducing wages, 
excluding the union and generally furthering the Government's anti-union 
industrial relations agenda.

Not surprisingly the guidelines are unacceptable to the staff.

The guidelines include the following stipulations:

* enterprise agreements should not refer to or incorporate industry-wide 
awards. (The incorporation of such provisions in enterprise agreements has 
been central to the protection of staff from the award stripping process);

* stripping from enterprise agreements the protection against arbitrary 
dismissal, study and training leave, special leave, redeployment rights, 
and the right of staff and unions to be consulted about workplace change.

Universities would be obliged to remove long-standing conditions relating 
to job security. These include: union and staff consultation prior to final 
decisions to retrench staff; appeal rights against redundancy decisions; 
employer obligation to explore retraining and redeployment rather than 
retrenchment; committees to hear misconduct and unsatisfactory performance 
charges.

The failure of the Government to adequately fund universities is placing 
more pressure on institutions to find money elsewhere.

"The Government has a responsibility as the primary funder of what was, and 
should remain, a public system to meet increasing costs, but they refuse to 
do so", NTEU President Carolyn Allport told The Guardian.

"That puts more pressure on institutions to find other money, and fee-
paying students is a large area where they can `earn' extra money."

While the Government says it can't afford to fund the pay increases sought 
by university staff, the union says this is part of the overall "funding 
squeeze" strategy to force universities to charge exorbitant fees.

Ms Allport said that it was clear how restrictive these fees could be by 
what universities were already charging international students, who can be 
paying above $100,000.

This shows that the funding issue is a very political one, she said, 
because "it becomes much more elitist, much more based on your wealth, not 
your merit or any notion of creating opportunity for people to upgrade 
their education and skills".

She said the Federal Government was "trying, through enterprise bargaining, 
and through capping the number of student places and reducing the amount of 
money that they provide, to force universities to privatise".

Stressing that privatisation was an issue of great concern to many 
university staff and the union, Ms Allport pointed out that the 
Government's use of enterprise bargaining would be one of the key ways in 
which the system becomes privatised.

"You had to sign up for AWAs, you had to have closed agreements, you 
couldn't have any union-facilitative clauses ... and on it went. It was 
just part of a coercive strategy.

"None of the institutions have been signing up to that [Kemp's guidelines] 
because we won't accept it."

She said the problem was "endemic".

Funding has fallen way behind the massive increases in the number of 
students in tertiary education over a number of years.

Since 1996, the total number of staff has fallen by nearly three per cent, 
despite student numbers steadily rising.

As well as increased pressure on universities from student numbers, there 
are growing demands to provide other costly services such as Learning On-
Line, so lectures are available to students over the internet whenever they 
need to access it

University staff and the union are determined to fight privatisation and 
defend for future young Australians the wonderful opportunity provided by 
having a universal and accessible public tertiary education system.

Back to index page