Staff at Victoria University (VU) are bearing the brunt of the latest attack in what is an industry-wide push by university managements to wind back conditions in the sector.
To get a sense of what is happening at VU, Green Left Radio spoke to National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Victoria University branch president Paul Adams.
Could you give us a summary of what VU management has done in terms of the sackings that have occurred?
The university is about to start enterprise bargaining soon and what’s happened is that three of our four branch officers have been put into the retrenchment process: myself, the branch president; Stuart Martin, the professional vice president; and David Garland, the branch secretary.
We don't believe that this is a coincidence. Indeed, it has never happened at any other union branch at a university anywhere in Australia.
We think that what is happening is that management are seeking to cripple the union coming into enterprise bargaining, because they have an interest in bringing in sub-standard conditions for staff.
It has also been passed on as well, privately from management, that indeed some of us have been targeted. So we are not in any doubt that this is what’s happening.
We think this is an attempt to try and smash the union at VU, but we are NTEU and we are here to stay, so we are going to fight them.
What are the legalities of this case, can management actually get away with such a deliberate attack on union organisations?
I think, as many unionists are beginning to realise around Australia – and indeed the ACTU [Australian Council of Trade Unions] is very vocal about this – that the Fair Work Act and our industrial relations system in Australia is broken, it doesn't work anymore.
In addition to what’s happening to us, for example, there has been 700 enterprise bargaining agreements in Australia that have been terminated.
In our industry, Murdoch University’s was terminated recently. What that meant for staff there was a potential 30 to 40% drop in wages, cuts to superannuation, cuts to things like personal leave. These conditions have been built up over 20 years and are being taken away with a stroke of a pen.
In our particular case, we are battling the adverse action laws. They are very antiquated. In order to prove that you have been targeted, you have to get management to put it in writing, which is absurd because management are never going to do that.
So this makes workers around Australia and union officials very vulnerable to these kinds of attacks.
In the old days, of course, what we would have done, prior to the Fair Work Act, we would have all gone on strike. We can't do that now because it is illegal, they know who we are and they can come and take our house.
So it really is a situation where things are stacked against working people.
It seems Murdoch University’s decision to terminate the enterprise agreement has provided other universities with the motivation and ideas to attack university staff. How do you see this?
I think that initially, after Murdoch, there was a feeling from the vice chancellors committee and other people that this was an opportunity to reduce conditions at universities.
Indeed, the federal Minster for Education, Simon Birmingham, came out in a speech and said: “Come on vice chancellors, this is an opportunity, it’s time to get stuck into your workforce, you can start drastically reducing conditions”.
And so there was a move at some universities to try and do this. There were things like a ballot at the University of Sydney to try to get staff to agree to a bad agreement; the same at James Cook University.
But these ballots went down and not only did union members vote against management, but also non-union members, so they are very unpopular.
Our union feels that there is now a feeling in the air that workers are getting very angry about this and it’s not just in our industry. It’s happening with the Fair Work Act and people are starting to mobilise in quite a serious way.
There will be growing pressure from the union movement to do something about this because, in a sense, the sorts of things that are happening are basically really starting to say to workers: “The Fair Work Act no longer functions for you, you have no piece of the industrial system, there is nothing there that really works for you.”
I think a lot of workers are getting very angry about it, so I think there will be a lot of growth in support and anger around the “Change the rules” campaign, which is starting to gather a lot of momentum.
The attacks on workers in the education sector essentially lead to poor quality service. How does management account for that? How do they justify these cuts given that they are fully aware that it will affect the quality of teaching?
This is something the NTEU has been arguing very strongly about. All the cuts that are happening, in particular the intensification of teaching, the dumbing down of universities which is occurring at the moment, is having a significant effect on things like teaching.
The problem we have is that we no longer work in the old system where we had boards comprised of intellectuals and academics running the place.
Most of the people running universities and on university councils are more like the kind of people who sit on the boards of multinational companies. They don’t have a loyalty to the university system or the staff or the institution: they really only have a loyalty to themselves and to making profit.
That’s the problem, it’s a problem that’s endemic in the university system, and the blame must be squarely placed at the feet of the various governments that have been presiding over the education system.
The net effect is bad for staff and bad for students because in effect what they're trying to do is to cheapen costs and increase profits but that doesn’t make for good education.
But how much of VU is actually a profit-making enterprise, because we are dealing here with public education?
What in essence they are trying to do is make profits for themselves. Vice chancellor salaries are amazing. We have some of the most highly-paid vice chancellors in the world.
We have some of the highest student fees in the world.
We have the least investment in the university system among OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries.
These are very dramatic statistics which tell you that various governments have been trying to get the higher education system not only to pay for itself but to make profit, and students and staff are the losers in the system.
VU has always been under attack in terms of cuts, and compared to bigger universities like Monash or Melbourne University, it’s a struggling university. What do you see happening in terms of the future of VU as the only university catering for the western suburbs of Melbourne?
There is no doubt that VU did not do well when the university system was marketised.
Originally we had a system of block funding, where every institution was guaranteed funding. What they did was they opened up the doors and said there’s no cap on student places and universities can take as many students as they like.
VU didn’t benefit from that system because what happened was some of the bigger universities started warehousing students, so we starting losing students.
There were other universities in similar sorts of situations, but VU seems to have faired poorly because of very poor management. They have had a very anti-union, anti-staff approach and they have never been able to get staff on side.
They went on an outsourcing and privatising spree. They outsourced facility services and instead of making a profit they had a huge loss.
They then had annual and six-monthly restructures that have been very costly, because they have had to pay out huge retrenchment bills. And a lot of the strategic funds they have been saving have been paid out on things they did not need to pay.
The actual situation has been exacerbated by very poor management.
In terms of where VU is going in the future, it is our view that it didn’t have to go this way, but that because of poor management there is a danger that we will no longer have a university of the west. I would say a quite likely outcome in the future is some kind of amalgamation or fire sale of the university, where the big fish eat the little fish, which is a basic law of capitalist economics.
Where staff are coming from, we would like to see VU continue, but it is becoming less likely because of poor management and the fact that management has systematically alienated the community by selling up campuses and various other things.
Really it’s the blight of neoliberalism, which is the kind of way VU has been rigidly run and managed in a community area like the western suburbs,` where you would expect the university to be a community university, not a multinational corporation.
These kinds of methods are not working.