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!

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.