Australian University Unions Shouldn’t Be Voting for Wage Cuts

Academics across Australia are being asked to swallow deep wage cuts to stave off redundancies amid the economic fallout from the pandemic. But asking workers to foot the bill is backward and unnecessary — there are better solutions for saving higher education.

A student union representative speaks to other students during a "National Day of Action Against Voluntary Student Unionism Legislation" march in 2005. Cameron Spencer / Getty

Universities around Australia are suffering a revenue crisis brought about by COVID-19 and the predicted shortfall in high-fee-paying enrollments overseas. In response, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), in collaboration with a number of vice-chancellors, drafted the National Jobs Protection Framework (JPF) that seeks to make up for the dramatic loss in revenue. Rather than simply cut jobs, the logic goes, the framework will ask all employees to take a significant wage cut, as well as a host of other measures that will ultimately allow for academic staff to work longer hours for less.

Seventeen universities have so far rejected the JPF. In some cases, it was rejected from above, as in the case of Deakin University, where the administration declared a preference for cutting a staggering four hundred jobs instead. And in others, such as at the University of Melbourne, an all-staff vote rejected the proposal to vary their enterprise bargaining agreement.

Likewise, an all-staff vote is set to take place at La Trobe University this week, and it is expected that a majority will endorse the framework — as did a union vote at La Trobe last week. If the framework does pass, it is because staff members have swallowed the idea that there is no alternative. But rather than adjusting enterprise bargaining agreements that were hard-fought for, union members could be pushing for adequate, publicly funded higher education instead. We needn’t accept the choice between two bad options. The prospect of developing an alternative solution seems to have faded from view.

A Bad Deal

Advocates for the Job Protection Framework at La Trobe — chief among them, vice-chancellor John Dewar — argue that without the deal, the university will be forced to cut between 600 and 800 jobs. With voluntary redundancies (where expressions of interest have already been vetted), the JPF promises to reduce the number of job losses to between 225 and 425 jobs. In short, even in its own terms, the framework will not stop job losses, but reduce them.

Worse, the JPF cannot even be relied upon to limit job losses after the initial wave of cuts. In a sector where restructures have become the permanent state of exception there are no grounds to believe that after the endorsement of a JPF, there will not be more restructures and redundancies.

This is particularly the case at La Trobe. As a recent email from the La Trobe NTEU branch president conceded, a new restructure is already underway. Not only will it cost more jobs, but these losses are already exempt from the terms of the La Trobe JPF.

The NTEU’s power to resist these cuts is severely curtailed, a matter made worse by appointing James Doughney to represent the union on the “Expert Assessment Panel” created to oversee cuts.

Doughney is the former Victorian president of the NTEU who switched sides in 2012 to work in human resources at Victoria University (VU). Doughney served as the right-hand man to Vice-Chancellor Peter Dawkins as the head of enterprise bargaining on the management’s side, slashing jobs and attacking the union.

It also conceals the spending priorities of La Trobe’s executives. La Trobe is, like most other universities, opaque when it comes to its investments. And like other universities, instead of cultivating the provision of quality education, university finances have been increasingly dedicated to maintaining the governance structure of a bloated bureaucracy.

Rather than use the funding crisis as an opportunity to cut wages, the money could be found by shifting the focus away from marketing and management. Why do we need to spend money on a new university slogan every few years? In 2018, La Trobe spent close to $10 million on advertising, down from $11.5 million the year before. From its inception in 2013, likely millions more were sunk into La Trobe’s “future ready” mission — a slogan the university perverts in the present.

Sacrificing Casuals

At La Trobe, as elsewhere, there is a glut of deputy vice-chancellors, provost chancellors, as well as multiple divisions and directors of governance. Partly the result of universities’ propensity for periodic restructuring, the expansion of executive positions and layers of management have ballooned over recent decades. La Trobe’s annual reporting conceals the full costs associated with this by only detailing eleven executive officers directly responsible to the vice-chancellor, whose combined remuneration was worth over $4 million in 2018. Many other executives and managers, on salaries beyond comprehension, make up the layers of committees university-wide.

While some La Trobe senior executives have volunteered to take a temporary 20 percent pay cut, as François Furstenberg argues, such a sacrifice can hardly be compared with the insecure wages of a proliferating layer of part-time workers at the university.

One PhD student I am supervising relies on part-time work for their livelihood. Their wage for one semester, teaching four seminars, is around $10,495 — an income just above 1 percent of one of the lower-paid vice-chancellors. This part-time worker, like many others, is forced to stretch two semesters’ worth of wages over the mid- and summer-semester breaks. It is part-time workers, of course, who have been some of the most outspoken critics of the so-called Job Protection Framework.

Casual- and fixed-term contract staff have become the most essential — and the most precarious — university workers. On average they make up about two-thirds of teaching staff. Their publications contribute to the research status of a university, usually without the support of funds or grants. While they contribute so much through undergraduate teaching and research, they are denied the same opportunity as permanent staff to supervise postgraduate students or participate in decision-making. To make ends meet, they are forced to overload their time with teaching, often at multiple universities. This eats into their research time, trapping part-time workers in a loop that diminishes already-slim chances of securing a permanent job.

Meanwhile, the reserve army of unemployed or under-employed casual or contract staff means that even after cuts and restructures, there are always enough qualified academics on standby to keep the essential business of teaching going. This maintains a constant threat of redundancy, placing permanent pressure on academics’ workloads.

No wonder so many long-term academic and frontline staff are jaded and carry on with an air of resignation. In both the short and long term, we are all disposable.

False Choices

The management at La Trobe that is pushing for the implementation of the JPF instinctively sees casual employees as disposable, and now assumes it can cut the wages of its permanent-contract staff. In all cases, it’s employees who are asked to foot the bill. However, even according to its logic, the JPF is inadequate in protecting jobs: it is asking staff to choose between a loss of two hundred or four hundred jobs.

It’s reminiscent of a high school ethics thought experiment: Do we throw two people overboard to save four? But this type of reasoning tends to assume that sacrifice is essential and that one’s own life is not in danger. The further away from disposability one is, the easier it feels to accept the calculation. In truth, we have been so well-groomed to accept lost jobs — for the greater good of the university — that it has become almost impossible to ask, instead, how we may save all of them.

But what kind of university are we saving if we do not take this moment to listen to and protect the most precarious workers in our sector? What kind of union follows the logic of protecting only some jobs in order to save others? How do we expect to preserve our knowledge and cultivate the quality of our degrees if the answer to every revenue crisis is to cull the front line of our services?

If we want to steer higher education back toward becoming a public good, we need our union and our management to bat for us. And if we interrogate the “there is no alternative” framing, we might find ourselves to be capable of saving far more than a few jobs over others.