It has been almost a decade since members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) last went on strike at Sydney University.
In 2009, the NTEU threatened to strike on two occasions, only to cancel strike action at the eleventh hour when the University’s administration agreed to back down on proposed changes to pay and working conditions. At that time, the union’s key point of contention with University management pertained to the introduction of ‘teaching only’ positions for academics – an idea that perhaps belies the fixation on research output that led management to attempt to cut over 300 staff in 2012. But the administration’s proposed amendments to the new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) are arguably the most draconian in over a decade.
The 2013-2015 EBA is at the heart of the NTEU’s current dispute with the university. The new EBA will dictate the conditions of employment for staff for the next four years, and stipulates things such as pay increases, working hours and leave entitlements. Recent enterprise agreements have offered staff pay increases of 15-20% over three or four years. The new EBA offers only 2% per annum, an increase that fails to even keep up with inflation, meaning staff would be taking a real wage cut. In addition, and amongst many other changes, it proposes to reduce sick leave entitlements by 60%, remove restrictions to increased casualisation, and abolish the so-called 40:40:20 provision, which states that 40% of academics’ time is to be spent on research, 40% on teaching, and 20% on administration.
While these changes undoubtedly reflect a University management that is hostile to its own academic staff to an almost unprecedented degree, they are also emblematic of the direction of tertiary education in recent decades. The Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s exposed Australia’s public education system to market forces by making government funding contingent on extensive metric-based reporting on research and courses. This led to the modern phenomenon of endless management plans, ‘key performance indicators’ and a general corporatisation of the university. The consequences for both students and staff have been obvious: students have become private consumers of education, while staff are increasingly at the mercy of fickle management policies, particularly in an age of deregulated labour markets.
Indeed, the last academic strike at the University of Sydney, in 2003, was not so much about the contents of the University’s proposed EBA as it was about the Howard government’s attempt to force universities to offer staff individual contracts, rather than have all staff covered under a collective enterprise agreement. And despite the repeal of the worst elements of John Howard’s industrial relations policy, the trend towards a more casualised and deunionised academic workforce has continued. With a Coalition victory in this year’s election now appearing inevitable, education and industrial relations policies are unlikely to improve in the interests of students and academics.
The NTEU’s week one strike is significant in that it signals that the union is willing and able to take industrial action in the face of severe attacks on the rights of arguably the most important workers in the modern economy – our educators. But it will also highlight some of the more fundamental, structural issues in the Australian tertiary education system, which are not given nearly enough attention by our politicians and the mainstream media. The strike may inconvenience some students and staff on the first few days of the teaching semester, but that’s the point. We all have a stake in the quality of our higher education system. The strike is primarily about a more equitable EBA for staff, but one would hope that it also provokes some meaningful discussion about the future of higher education in this country.