For anyone at the University of Sydney in the past few years, the staff strikes have always been a salient part of the university experience. Student activists would flyer tirelessly on Eastern Avenue and paint large banners displaying graphics of student-staff solidarity. The strikes themselves were lively, and brimming with passion and a hope for a better university — a better world. Students linked arms with staff to protect picket lines, strikers at the Conservatorium played songs of solidarity, and strike days would end with rousing chants and speeches outside F23.
However, the strikes were likely an afterthought for many; the one day I have to stay home or find another library to study, a fleeting discourse on Facebook. This is unfortunate, because not only were the strikes an opportunity to experience a sense of camaraderie which our atomised education deprives us from, it was a crucial moment for staff to fight for their rights and our education. The strikes at Sydney in the past few days amounted to the longest strike campaign in the history of Australian universities. As much as this was a reflection of the NTEU’s grit and determination, it was equally a clear indication of University management’s bad-faith negotiation tactics, and disregard for staff and education.
On 13 June, the NTEU voted to accept management’s enterprise bargaining agreement, after 22 months of negotiations, and nine days of strike action across the two years of bargaining. This article will look back on the past two years, and the agreement which the NTEU fought tirelessly to win.
Why were staff on strike
Universities are meant to be a place of collective knowledge-sharing and human connection. However, in the past few decades, the university — a community of students, lecturers and staff — has become superimposed with a corporate structure of business executives whose greatest incentive is to extract as much profit as possible.
In this sense, the University of Sydney in 2021 can be best understood as a tale of two cities. In 2021, the University recorded a $1.04 billion surplus. In 2021, the University also admitted that it underpaid staff by $12.75 million.
In the past few years, the University has experienced an influx of new students, with the total enrolled growing from 60,868 students in 2020 to 74,862 in 2021 — an increase of 23%. The University also laid off close to 20% of all staff in the 2019 – 2021 period, resulting in the lowest level of academic employees since 2018. Staff-to-student ratios soared from 16 to 21 students per member of teaching staff. In 2021, 52% of employees at the University held casual contracts. In 2021, only 1.6% of these employees were offered permanent positions.
Working at a university is increasingly characterised by precarious work, where staff were made redundant as a cost-cutting measure, and bloated workloads which are not adequately compensated. For example, academics are not fairly compensated for administrative work such as replying to emails and consulting students outside of teaching hours. Furthermore, marking loads are often unmanageable, with staff having to mark 2000-word essays in under thirty minutes in order to maintain their hourly rate according to the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, in fact, according to NTEU Branch Committee member Joel Griggs, a tutor’s pay rate is calculated based on the rate of marking 4500 words in an hour.
Every four years, the NTEU negotiates with University Management for a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. In this bargaining period, staff are often met with stonewalling from management, and using bad-faith negotiating tactics such as employing a corporate lawyer for all meetings with the bargaining team. In the past, staff have gone on strike during the bargaining periods in 2013 and 2017, due to management intransigence, and more broadly, to reaffirm the agency of working people in taking ownership over their labour.
The past bargaining period began in August 2021 and the parties met over 29 meetings for formal negotiations. During this period, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost Annamarie Jagose blamed the union for the extended bargaining period, describing it as “excessive”. Jagose attributed the negotiation period to the “volume of claims made by staff unions” and “union intransigency on academic matters”.
After months of failed negotiations and stonewalling by university management, that staff decided to take action. On April 14, 2022, the University of Sydney branch of the NTEU voted to go on strike. There was a total of nine days of strike action, with six in 2022 alone and thr in 2023.
Staff demands include:
|A 5% pay, per year||18.2% pay rise (over 5 yrs)|
|An end to forced redundancies||N/A|
|Paths to permanent employment for casual staff||20% de-casualisation of casual academic labour (no guarantees)|
|The establishment of a First Nations employment quota||A commitment to population parity, a new consultative committee|
|Ensuring that staff are not overworked, maintaining 40:40:20||Protections for staff e.g. enhanced leave entitlements, flexible working arrangements|
NTEU Demands and the Agreement
On 13 June this year, the USyd NTEU held the largest meeting in NTEU history where 80% of members voted to endorse management’s enterprise agreement. Over 800 members attended the meeting with 688 members voting in favour of this motion.
On the final agreement, USyd NTEU Branch President Nick Riemer said, “We didn’t get everything we wanted – far from it. But we showed that we were entirely serious when we said that if management want to launch a comprehensive attack on their own staff, then they’ll have to be ready for a major fight.”
The final agreement includes a 4.6% salary increase to be paid in the first full pay period following commencement of the Agreement, with 3.75% increases to be paid in July 2024 and July 2025, and a 4% increase to be paid in June 2026.
The final pay rise, which amounts to 18.2% over the five years of the agreement, is the highest in the tertiary education sector and, in context, can be considered a win for staff at USyd. However, this is an indication of broader systemic failures in the industry, as the pay increases are significantly below the current rate of inflation, still up at around 7%. As noted previously, this is all the whilst universities are raking in record profits.
Protections for casuals
A significant part of this bargaining period was more protections for casual staff. With the corporatisation of universities, senior management have profit incentives to hire casual staff who can be easily underpaid and made redundant. For instance, there is the problem of sector-wide wage theft with USyd being one of the main culprits. However, the final agreement is insufficient in providing adequate protections for casual staff.
The main concessions on casuals from management, include “all reasonable steps” to reduce the proportion of casual academics by 20%, casual sick leave, and 330 new academic positions which management claims to prioritise eligible USyd casual and fixed-term academics. The USyd Casuals Network released an analysis of the agreement for casuals prior to the vote on 13 June, explaining how these concessions are either illusory or inadequate.
On the 20% reduction of casuals, the explainer notes that all management have committed to are “all reasonable steps” rather than any enforceable mechanism. Furthermore, there is a caveat in the agreement which states that the clause will not apply “exceptional and unanticipated adverse impacts upon the University’s financial circumstance”. These vague terms indicate that this policy will likely rely on management discretion.
Of the 330 new academic positions, 220 are education-focused and 110 are 40:40:20. Only 110 of these positions will be reserved for current staff (55 EFRs and 55 40:40:20 positions). These are three year contracts without a clear pathway for job security once they expire. Furthermore, the document notes that these new positions provide little relief for casual staff, of which there are over 4000 currently employed, and where the NTEU has previously estimated that over 800 new positions would be needed to “decasualise the University fully”.
The new agreement includes a commitment to 5 days of special paid leave to cover casuals who need time off due to illness or injury. However, though a step forward to lessening the burden on casual staff, the agreement itself only requires management to implement a policy within 12 months, rather than a more immediate solution.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Staff
The agreement brings in new provisions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff. This includes an Indigenous Joint Consultative Committee to consult on matters regarding staff at the University and drafting a cultural safety policy. There is also a broader commitment to population parity “in the life of the next agreement.” Despite being a positive step, the next agreement is five years away, and without a concrete policy in place it is unclear how the University intends to meet the 3.8% target (at time of writing) required to meet population parity. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the committee will have a significant sway in management decision making.
Workload Protections and Leave allowances
Another key demand was ensuring that staff are not overworked. The main protections in the new agreement are centred around leave entitlements. These leave entitlements include gender affirmation leave, which includes a pool of 30 days, compassionate leave, domestic violence leave, amongst other expansions. However, these changes are still indicative of management’s inability to centre the concerns of staff. For example, with gender affirmation leave, students staff have previously demanded six-weeks, annualised leave.
There have also been increased protections on management restrictions to flexible working arrangements, such as a new right that staff are not required to check emails or other university systems when they are not at work. This includes limitations on management’s ability to reject applications for flexitime, and working remotely. For instance, management can only reject a request to work from home, if they can show that the arrangement won’t meet the requirements of the University.
A large issue of the strikes this year were education focused roles which undermine the 40:40:20 workload division between research, teaching, and administration, pushing teaching loads up to 70% of an academic’s workload. The agreement caps the number of EFRs at 25% of non-casual teaching staff. EFRs are fundamentally problematic but with the hiring cap having expired in 2021, it’s beneficial that this agreement limits management’s capacity to abuse these positions. Furthermore, though there are provisions for EFR staff to transition to 40:40:20 positions, this is only after four years, and prospects of career progression are limited, particularly since academics in EFRs aren’t able to do as much research.
Riemer told Honi, “But we have major unfinished business from this round, especially as far as Education-focused roles are concerned, and we will be doing everything in power to make sure that these exploitative roles are properly regulated now, and wound back in the next agreement.”
The Bigger Picture
Staff are rising to fight for fair pay, workloads, and employee protections across the sector and indeed the world. NTEU branches across the country have entered multiple rounds of enterprise bargaining, and have retaliated against unfair offers with industrial action ranging from work stoppages to picket lines.
Beyond Australia, the University and College Union (UCU) in the United Kingdom have been bargaining with their employer body, UCEA, for over a year now. They have taken twelve days of industrial action in 2023 alone, and have embarked upon a marking boycott which has impacted the award of degrees.
Overall, the increasing mistreatment of staff in the tertiary education sector is symptomatic of a larger evil. As university degrees become increasingly commodified, universities themselves become corporatised. At the University of Sydney, the Vice Chancellor has no background in tertiary education, and was instead brought on not to improve the quality of education USyd provides, but to increase profits and productivity. As such, the role of the University as an institution where knowledge is generated has degraded. Particularly with the prevalence of EFRs, it is clear that universities are moving towards a future in which academics are increasingly undervalued and students have diminished access to a career in research.
Despite it being regrettable that the strikes had to occur, and that University management is so narrowly focused on profit that basic demands like a pay rise are not afforded to staff, the strikes themselves were a glowing display of what a university is — a place where the world is challenged, and a better one is imagined and fought for.