University staff strike across Australia

By Dani Barley

On September 16, members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) took to the picket lines for a 24-hour strike to protest conditions and secure new collective agreements at 16 universities across the country. The NTEU, which represents both academics and general university staff, is campaigning in a nationally-coordinated fashion to win the return of conditions abolished under the previous Howard government, including greater job security, better conditions for casual staff (which often make up the bulk of the undergraduate teaching staff), fairer workload agreements and an increase in pay.

The NTEU has been conducting negotiations on behalf of its 27,000 members at each of the universities for over 12 months without any agreements being reached. In most cases, the September 16 strike was the first work stoppage to arise out of the current round of negotiations. Over 80% of the NTEU membership voted to support strike action. Just hours before the strike was to take place, the University of Sydney reached an agreement with its staff, leading to a cancellation of the strike action at that university.

“It is time for management to invest in quality education outcomes by ensuring improved staff/student ratios, more resources, improved conditions and more secure jobs for casual staff”, said NTEU general secretary Grahame McCulloch in a statement released on the day of the strike. At some campuses, members of other unions, such as construction workers working on university building projects, joined the picket lines in solidarity. Student support was also visible around the country.

This is not likely to be the last round of industrial action in the Australian university sector. NTEU members at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology announced the day after the strike that they would be implementing a ban on releasing student results to the university administration. Such an action is legally protected and is a tactic being considered at other universities.

For some universities, the stakes are extremely high. The University of Western Sydney (UWS), for example, has the highest staff to student ratio in the country — 1:23 compared to the national average of 1:19.  Such a situation would be inadequate at any university, but at UWS the problem is exacerbated because the university has six campuses spread across western Sydney and has a higher proportion of students coming from non-English speaking backgrounds and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds than most universities.

These facts are contained in a report jointly funded by the NTEU and UWS, released this May: Overload: The role of work-volume escalation and micro-management of academic work patterns in loss of morale and collegiality at UWS; the way forward. This report provides evidence of the damage done by recruiting such students into a understaffed and underfunded study environment. The researchers concluded that this has made UWS a “remedial university”. 

Under the current UWS work-load agreement, the teaching staff’s time is divided into parts of a 1725-hour-a-year working load. They are only paid for the hours allotted for completing a particular task, regardless of how long it actually takes. For some staff, this means an allotted 20 minutes to mark a 1000-word undergraduate essay, complete with necessary written feedback and suggestions for improvement.

The survey also found a severe underestimation of the time needed to prepare lectures, answer student emails and inquiries and perform basic administrative tasks due to the lack of secretarial support within the university’s schools. All of the respondents to the survey reported working on the weekends and over half reported undertaking academic work before 8am and/or after 8pm on an average of four to five days each week.

The Overload report is actually the result of two rounds of consultation with UWS staff, as the first survey was largely ignored due to the complicated nature of the work-load agreement. Some teaching staff sent back blank forms because their agreements were “so obscure” they were unable to compare them with the work they did. The researchers also encountered a higher than expected level of staff unease at being recorded or seen attending NTEU focus group sessions for the survey.

One of the researchers, Robyn Moroney, a senior lecturer at UWS, told the June 10 Australian that NTEU officials would tour all the other universities across New South Wales and encourage them to conduct similar studies. The UWS administration has reacted unfavourably to the report and, following an article in the June 10 Australian, sent an email to all UWS staff extolling the virtues and the successes of the university. The email, written by deputy vice-chancellor Rhonda Hawkins, was a particularly desperate spin attempt and did not respond to any of the substantive findings of the report.

During the September 16 strike, UWS academics explained their situation in greater detail to Direct Action. One lecturer explained that her first year arts unit no longer had face-to-face lectures, but three 15-minute podcasts and a one-hour a week tutorial over 12 teaching weeks. (Five years ago, all first-year UWS arts units had at least a one-hour lecture and a minimum of one 90-minute tutorial each week over 14 teaching weeks.) Staff reported low morale and high stress and many were beginning to look elsewhere for work.

While the deterioration of teaching conditions at UWS and other universities certainly began under the Howard Coalition government, the Rudd Labor government’s “Education Revolution” has done little to reverse the situation. Because the Rudd plan is driven, like the Howard government’s education “reforms” by the interests of big business, universities are going to continue to focus on bringing in greater revenue through low-cost and high-turnover courses, high international student numbers paying exorbitant fees, and expecting less staff to cope with higher student numbers and less collegial support. If the NTEU is to have any hope of actually improving staff conditions, it will have to start criticising the Rudd government’s approach to university education rather than just lamenting the results of 12 years of Howard’s “reforms”.