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Treacherous Accommodations: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and the NTEU

They have been struggling to keep their membership numbers healthy, but the latest antics of the executive that make up Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union suggest why. For a good period of time, Australian unions have been losing teeth, and not all of it can be put down to the measures of the federal government to pull them. In the university sector, where unionism should be intellectually vibrant and committed, the issue is one of corporatist accommodation. Do not rock the boat of management; give executives vast, byzantine powers of disciplining staff; do little to criticise the obscene remuneration packages of the Vice Chancellors and their tribunes.

With the NTEU being, in many instances, retainers for university executives, rather than defenders of the academic work force, the email circulated to members on April 8 by the general secretary Matthew McGowan could hardly have come as a shock. These are trying times in response to coronavirus, and Universities Australia chairperson Deborah Terry has promised the loss of 21,000 jobs over the next six months in the tertiary sector.

Having revealed that the NTEU had “approached a number of Vice Chancellors, Universities Australia, and the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association to press the need for an urgent national dialogue,” McGowan outlined the grim agenda. “To protect jobs, we may need to consider measures that we would never normally consider. These may include deferral of pay rises, providing the ability to direct taking of leave, or other cost saving measures.”

The letter is replete with the weasel words that have come to characterise NTEU-University “dialogues”. Any harsh measures taken are to be “temporary and proportional to the loss at each university.” There needed to be “transparency and oversight” (Australian universities do a good line in unaccountability and opaque governance, making such suggestions mildly amusing, if not downright ridiculous.)

Having outlined a position of forfeiture and compromise, the sell-out narrative is given the usual garnish: the federal government should throw money at the sector with drunken relish; a “national discussion” (tea anybody?) needed to be had about future international student enrolments. And to convince the membership that the NTEU executive was being somehow compassionate, McGowan was careful to underline the objectives of the negotiations. “Our primary aim is to protect jobs and to ensure that job cuts are the last resort. Of course, we believe that universities must divert funds from capital works and other non-staff related expenditure, as well as to take cuts to senior management salaries before staff are asked to bear the burden.”

No of course about it. The NTEU national executive is giving the most generous of signals to university management to make swingeing cuts as long as they, angelic types as they are, make a few concessions of their own. Its method is a tested and failed one: cooperation (“you can get everything you want through cooperation,” says ACTU secretary Sally McManus), or, more accurately, collaboration.

The ultimate purpose of this arrangement is to create a framework of salvation, with more profitable universities supposedly buffering weaker, less profitable ones. NTEU National President Alison Barnes, with characteristic lack of conviction, speaks of this framework as “a temporary measure to provide staff and the union with a higher degree of certainty and security than would otherwise occur in an industrial free-for-all.”

The way this will be executed will be through that vehicle that has become a symbol of some mockery: the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. While the NTEU tends to congratulate itself about the “better pay, better conditions” line, the pathetically modest improvements, such EBAs are policing tools, controlling staff with such Orwellian notions as the code of conduct and the odd bribe.

Voting on the new EBAs is bound to take place at speed and with little information handy for NTEU members. The cheeky changes made by the federal government to the Fair Work Act on the time needed to consult over changes to pay and conditions – from one week to a mere 24 hours – is a sign of what is to come.

The NTEU branches have not been impressed, but they can hardly be surprised by the temptations of such feeble treachery. There has been little in the way of demanding heads on platters and flesh for the gallows. The preference for the membership is for indignant voting, be they ones of censure or rude notes of awakening. At the University of Sydney, a vote of 117 to 2 was taken to censure the NTEU national executive for “commencing negotiations on significant concessions.”

As for the universities themselves, the cuts have begun in earnest. “Non-essential” research and professional staff casuals have been given their marching orders at La Trobe University and RMIT. What is regarded as non-essential would not, you would think, include library and staff in the information technology sections, but then again, a library without librarians is the sort of thing that would make sense to the university politburo. Instead, we have distinctly non-essential publicists and human resources personnel spreading the cheer, with RMIT having come up with that least essential of positions, a Chief People Officer, to facilitate matters. The line between ghoulish humour and agitprop has been well and truly crossed.

An awful truth has been let out by the recent antics of the NTEU national executive: members were actually paying fees for their betrayal in the university boardroom. They would not be consulted; the executive would decide what’s best. But instead of rectifying the situation, the NTEU is seeking a membership drive. Join the union, and get 3 months free membership! What a lark.

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  1. Phil Pryor

    The positions outlined, many and complex, worry this old pop with two fine student grandchildren in this problem mix. Cuts, delays, derailing, changes, all is happening and more is possible. Many in tertiary are already angry at relative poverty and vulnerability, while Syd, Uni’s Spence is about to leave with a fat wallet for a new life, well set up, in U K. Even as an alumnus, I do not know what has been achieved at huge cost by Spence at Syd. Uni. All institutions seem to be a little fat at the top and a fat head and skinny frame is not what we should wish for in our tertiary institutions. Much will occur, often unexpectably, soon enough, and may not be fair or pretty. I’ll back staff action though, as they have been attritionally reduced and suffer loss while trying very hard. The usual top attitudes include indifference, snobbishess (the appalling dud, J Bishop) and waste on non essentials. Nobody in government, especially federal, is aware, clever, investigative or capable. Lose a hundred politicians and so effing what?? They can be replaced in five minutes. Lose one hundred top professionals in any tertiary trained field, and we are ruined, crippled, beheaded.

  2. paul walter

    DR Kampmark is quite right in that a huge snow job has been under way in this country for the last genration and this has onlysped up withthe seizure of control of the media and press.

    The ABC has been in full retreat and good shows are now just apparatus of bullshit. No wonder the people believe the earth is flat, so to speak.

  3. Andrew Smith

    Universities, including the NTEU, maybe reflect the changing demographics of society, i.e. ageing and mostly baby boomer Anglo Celtic elites who have moved on from more liberal ideas of the past re. workplaces, economics and power to now being those (using a Turkish expression) ‘holding the chairs’, adhering to prosperity and pulling up the drawbridge

    Exemplified by baby boomer and slightly younger friends and/or former colleagues who were active union members but nowadays more likely to talk about their super, property values, golf/AFL and planned O/S trips…..

    Meanwhile, higher ed, VET and other public sector workplaces rely upon culturally diverse sessional or casual teaching and other staff, while management (see above) beyond the moat, have the perks and benefits of more permanent employment, while applying the scientific management principles of Frederick Taylor, aka Ford assembly lines, with non unionised staff, top down communication or edicts, with bottom up and horizontal communication and empowerment discouraged.

  4. Regional Elder

    While the Hawke-Keating Labor government set in train the slow degradation of the university sector under Education Minister John Dawkins in 1988 ( Funny how nations such as Finland can still make universities vibrant learning centres, without recourse to student fees) , the Howard government’s financial cuts to tertiary education, and sustained quest to turn universities into corporatist market-driven institutions, accelerated that development.

    The short 6 years of Labor government. 2007 to 2013, did little to reverse that trend, but rather, sought to fund the sector increasingly on exorbitant fees for international students. Meanwhile the managerialist class and marketing departments of our universities grew rapidly, along with with grossly inflated remuneration packages for those same senior administrators, while students themselves were transformed into customers, and academics, in increasingly numbers employed on short term contracts, became part of the wider ‘gig services’ economy. Indeed a tutor with a higher degree probably has less job security in 2020 than a 16 year old employee in the fast food industry. And that was before the Corona virus.

    Universities are in crisis. The government values the university knowledge and research industry only in so far as the dollars that come with international students, and in so far it enables the Coalition to offer electoral bribes to big business by way of their promised tax cuts.

    Not surprisingly, the Abbott-Turnbull -Morrison government which has exploited international students as cash cows for some years, and too, academic staff as expendable collateral damage to the university system’s bottom line. Not surprisingly, Morrison recently suggested that international students unable to support themselves in Australia under our recently changed Covid 19 conditions, should ‘ simply’ just return home. Equally, he and his political cadres will rail against the ‘ excesses ‘ that our beleaguered academic and support staff are threatening industrial action, because they want some security of job tenure, and reasonable pay conditions.

    The transformation of universities into corporatist market institutions, not learning and teaching organisations, is now almost complete, and Australia is the poorer for it.

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