The Guardian October 1, 2003


Funding blackmail:
Industrial uproar in universities

by Peter Mac

Australia's universities are seething with anger at the Howard Government's 
latest industrial blackmail concerning university industrial relations. The 
government has notified universities that their access to an extra $414 
million in funding will be conditional on them introducing harsh new 
industrial relations practices.

Under the government's proposed new conditions for universities to qualify 
for funding increases, all university employees would have to be notified 
individually that they have "the option" of entering into individual 
workplace agreements. In practice, this would take the form of pressuring 
employees to abandon collective union agreements.

Universities would not be allowed to remind employees of the other option, 
i.e. entering into collective bargaining agreements. Nor would they be 
permitted to provide union membership forms or facilities for union 
offices, including student unions.

The terms of individual agreements would override those of any collective 
agreement.

Universities would not be permitted to place any limits on the number of 
casual employment positions.

And in perhaps the most outrageous move of all, universities would not be 
allowed to enter into any agreement that included arrangements in excess of 
"community standards", i.e. anything better than a current agreement in 
widespread use. For example, the requirement would prevent acceptance by 
university authorities of improvements in redundancy payments.

If carried to its logical conclusion, this requirement would eliminate any 
future improvements in working conditions for university employees.

The government's new edict was timed to forestall the introduction of a new 
collective industrial relations agreement for Sydney University employees. 
The agreement included provision for a limit to the number of casual 
positions, and the introduction of 36 weeks of paid maternity leave, both 
of which are in excess of "community standards".

Because of the government's move, Sydney University authorities have 
postponed signing the collective agreement, and the University's employees 
have voted to take industrial action in protest, including a strike on 
October 6, the first day of the new term.

The agreement was widely expected to have been the forerunner for 
negotiations on similar agreements at other universities. As a result of 
the government's move and the university's response, all such negotiations 
are now in jeopardy.

A number of universities previously caved in to pressure from the Howard 
Government over other issues. The most notable case was that of Sydney 
University, whose conservative senate voted recently to accept in principle 
the raising of student fees by a maximum of 30 percent, in the event that 
the government managed to get the necessary legislation through Parliament.

However, even the most conservative university authorities have expressed 
shock at the government's latest requirements, and opposition to their 
introduction. Sydney University's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Gavin Brown, 
said that he was taken by surprise at the extremity of the government's new 
policies. He commented grimly:

"I have a fairly strong feeling that there will be universities that will 
say that impact on the quality of education we can offer, if we are forced 
to comply with these regulations, is not worth the money."

The executive Director of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, John 
Mulharvey last week expressed doubts as to whether such iron constraints 
were consistent with the government's own aim of fostering "flexible and 
responsive" work practices. He stated that: "We don't believe that 
university operating grants should be tied to such provisions."

ACTU President Sharon Burrow said the union movement would back the 
National Tertiary Education Union and other unions covering university 
employees, in opposing the government's attack on university unionism.

She declared that: "The requirements are unfair, discriminatory and 
extremist. The regulations specifically aim to erode long-standing benefits 
like redundancy pay, and to promote the use of casual labour. Collective 
agreements would become worthless for any staff forced onto individual 
contracts, which would override existing arrangements.

"The changes would contravene internationally recognised rights to freedom 
of association and collective bargaining. The government is using standover 
tactics to force its extremist policies onto university staff and 
management.

"Mr Abbott has failed to get his industrial legislation through the 
parliament and is now trying to bully universities to adopt his policies by 
threatening them with massive funding cuts.

"These changes will do nothing to solve real workplace problems in 
universities, such as high levels of job insecurity and excessive student-
to-staff ratios."

Student unions under attack

The government's anti-union position extends beyond the employee industrial 
relations arena to student unionism. The association representing student 
unions, the Australian Campus Union Managers Association (ACUMA) said that 
the legislation "has the ability to cripple student organisations at 
Australian universities."

The abolition of compulsory student unionism has the potential to eliminate 
600 jobs, (including 115 positions at Deakin University alone), and to 
drastically cut the level of student services provided.

These services include health and counselling services, child care, sports 
and entertainment. However, the Liberal Party's student offshoot, the 
Australian Liberal Students Federation, has actually defended the 
government 's move.

Tanya Skelpic, the Federation's President, pointed out with airy disdain 
that students with limited means now have to get part-time jobs to get 
through uni courses, and therefore "The ones that need to work and put 
themselves through uni don't have time to enjoy the (union) services."

Ms Skelpic ignores the fact that the very reason why students with limited 
means have to work to support themselves is the imposition of huge student 
fees by the Howard Government, which she defends.

She overlooks the stress that this situation causes, and also the fact that 
child-care services are vital for student mothers to complete courses. She 
also ignores the importance of entertainment as a crucial element in 
relieving the stress of study, which has now been compounded by the 
financial worries over the student fees.

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