Controversial plan could use pay cuts to prevent 'mass sackings' at Australian universities

A plan aimed at giving job security to thousands of university staff as Australia's higher education sector bleeds cash during the coronavirus crisis is being mooted.

Australia's universities have been financially ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Australia's universities have been financially ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. Source: Supplied

Thousands of university staff could sacrifice a large chunk of their salary under a controversial agreement to avoid massive job cuts in the tertiary education sector.

Australia's universities could lose a combined $5 billion this year due to the coronavirus pandemic - putting at least 12,000 jobs at risk, according to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

The union has worked with more than 30 Australian universities to come up with a proposal under which staff could take pay cuts in exchange for job security.

"There are no perfect options in a crisis," NTEU national president Alison Barnes said.

Australia's universities had lost a combined $4.5 billion in just six weeks, the NTEU said.
Source: Supplied

"In the absence of a properly-funded federal crisis package, our union has intervened to put income security and fairness at the centre of a national response.

"Without this agreement we faced mass sackings, which would have seen careers derailed and livelihoods destroyed."

Under the proposal, staff at the hardest-hit universities could sacrifice up to 15 per cent of their yearly salary, while others could take a hit of between 5 and 10 per cent.

"This framework enshrines the voice and input of staff at both a national and local level - it preserves more than 12,000 jobs and secures entitlements such as superannuation and leave," Dr Barnes said.

The proposal still needs to go through a series of member votes and approvals before it is put in place.

Dr Barnes said $4.5 billion had "melted away" from Australian universities in just the last six weeks.

Education Minister Dan Tehan last month unveiled a coronavirus relief package for the higher education sector, guaranteeing $18 billion for domestic students in 2020. 

Mr Tehan on Wednesday said it was good to see unions working constructively with universities.

"The government welcomes unions and employers working together to protect Australian jobs," he said in a statement.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan unveiled a coronavirus relief package for the higher education sector last month.
Source: AAP

The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, which represents 31 universities, said it had reached an initial agreement with the NTEU.

"Individual universities will now need to look at the detail of what has been agreed," the association's executive director Stuart Andrews said in a statement on Wednesday.

"All universities have been very hard hit by the impact of COVID-19 and they need to work out whether the package is going to assist them to make the financial savings that they now need to make."

Union showdown looms

The NSW arm of the Community and Public Sector Union - representing non-academic staff such as librarians and maintenance workers - has criticised the NTEU's "myopic" deal.

"This non-binding framework is being touted as a deal between all stakeholders, it's anything but," spokesman Troy Wright said.

"It leaves the lowest-paid staff, the people who are actually keeping these universities running, out in the cold.

"A 15 per cent wage cut may only be a haircut for high-paid academics, but for the professional staff of universities it is a life-altering cut to their pay packet."

Mr Wright said there were a range of other costs that could be cut by universities before staff salaries had to be put on the chopping block.

"But it would seem the NTEU's leather-elbow-patched brigade would rather librarians, student services and admin staff on less than $70,000 take a 15 per cent cut to their pay than see their travel allowances reduced."

Dr Barnes said low paid and casual staff would be protected under the NTEU's plan and it was the CPSU's right to "take whatever position they want".

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Published 13 May 2020 at 4:02pm
By Steven Trask