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Uni bosses blindsided by lack of support for jobs deal struck with union

Professor Dewar and Charles Sturt University vice-chancellor Andrew Vann were drawn from the 31 universities represented by the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association while Margaret Gardner (Monash University) and Jane den Hollander (University of Western Australia) were drawn from non-member universities in an effort to get broad representation of the sector. The approach was backed by peak body Universities Australia.

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“We felt that we had a mandate to negotiate this. So I suppose, yes, we did have an expectation that more vice-chancellors would take it up,” Professor Dewar said.

He conceded the plan was complex and said some vice-chancellors held “misplaced” fears about a proposed national panel that would scrutinise university finances in order to make a judgment on what level of pay cuts were justified. The panel included union representation.

The plan outlined 12-month variations to enterprise agreements, which would have to be approved by staff votes at individual universities. The NTEU cancelled a national vote of union members on the plan after it became clear many vice-chancellors would not adopt it.

“Every university has a different financial situation and it may be that in drafting the variation, it had assumed one size would fit all. It has obviously turned out that’s not the case,” Professor Dewar said.

La Trobe faces revenue losses of $400 million to $520 million between now and the end of next year and is desperately trying to secure more support from banks and get staff to agree to pay cuts to avoid job losses.

AHEIA executive director Stuart Andrews said the national framework was negotiated in “complete good faith on both sides” but some universities felt the measures were not adequate to tackle the “speed and scale” of their issues while others felt the consultation processes were excessive.

“Some other unions apart from the NTEU are opposed, as are some university NTEU branches which has also complicated decision making,” Mr Andrews said.

Dr Barnes said universities had baulked at the proposal because they feared scrutiny from the national panel.

“They didn’t want that scrutiny of their books, they didn’t want transparency, and presumably they didn’t want constraints around their ability to make people redundant,” she said.

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Universities are still able to implement a version of the jobs framework but the NTEU has dropped it as a “national plan” and warned the consequence will be major job losses and a major escalation of industrial disputes.

New modelling released by Universities Australia has projected total losses of between $3.1 billion and $4.8 billion this year and $16 billion between now and 2023 because of the blow to international student fee revenue.

The government has guaranteed $18 billion in funding for universities this year but has resisted further support despite escalating calls from the sector. Education Minister Dan Tehan discussed the crisis with vice-chancellors on Wednesday as part of a regular meeting schedule.

In a statement following the meeting, Mr Tehan said the priority was getting campuses open for teaching and noted the funding for research and education already being provided by the government. He said he was “confident” universities could navigate the crisis.

“According to the most recent financial data, in 2018 universities had total revenue of over $34 billion, of which nearly $18 billion came from the Commonwealth. Out of that revenue, after cash expenses, universities had $4.6 billion in reserves,” he said.

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Deakin University and CQUniversity have started laying off staff and the Australian National University has flagged voluntary redundancies as it faces a $225 million budget blow.

Western Sydney University vice-chancellor Barney Glover said his institution had been pursuing a strategy that was consistent with the “spirit and principles of the framework” in aiming to protect jobs.

“I believe the fact that the national negotiations were proceeding and the unprecedented nature of the range of measures being considered certainly assisted us in local discussions,” Professor Glover said.

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