Antipodean pay talks stall amid generation-high inflation

Universities face tough decisions as staff argue for wage rises to keep up with cost of living and budgets become increasingly stretched

July 29, 2022
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Annual pay negotiations coinciding with cost-of-living spikes and bleak financial predictions for institutional coffers has led to increased tensions on Australasian campuses.

Strikes could be called at Australian universities after management balked at union demands for salary rises to match soaring inflation. Meanwhile, New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Union has tried to garner community support for wage increases through a campaign that saw academics chalking the slogan “#WhatSocietyThinksIDo” on footpaths around the country.

The union’s national secretary, Sandra Grey, said annual pay settlements of between 1 and 3 per cent had left her members struggling to weather the worst inflation in 30 years. “Constant funding cuts…have left fewer and fewer people doing more and more work. The tertiary sector needs to find more resources to pay staff properly,” she said. 

Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) raised its salary increase target to 5 per cent annually for three years in May after inflation hit a 21-year high of 5.1 per cent. The country’s consumer price index (CPI) rose another percentage point on 27 July, bringing the increase to 6.1 per cent annually, the highest since 2001, with treasurer Jim Chalmers predicting inflation could hit almost 8 per cent by the end of the year

The NTEU says the sector has capacity for meaningful pay rises after several institutions registered record revenues and huge surpluses last year. Universities insist that the surpluses were a one-off, with Monash University – which finished the year A$411 million (£237 million) in the black – attributing the result to “unrealised investment gains” during a “bumper year” for the markets.

Monash vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner said that around A$150 million (£86 million) of this paper profit had already disappeared. “The surplus is sort of gone,” she told a University of Melbourne seminar, adding that most universities’ forecasts were for “small deficits” this year – or “small surpluses” if recruitment difficulties prevented them from filling staff vacancies.

Universities face pressure to raise salaries without a commensurate rise in earnings as while individual teaching grants are indexed in line with inflation, universities’ “maximum grant amounts” are not – which effectively means they can teach fewer students for roughly the same amount of money.

“[There is] scope for savings on the cost side, but not a revenue gain,” said Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton. Tuition fees are indexed, but “the indexation rules lag well behind price reality. Universities will be under significant wage pressure before they get any money to pay for it.”

Staff have also had a tough time shouldering bloated workloads while thousands of colleagues lost their jobs. Those remaining have bristled at perceptions that university administrations are too slow to negotiate – and too miserly, typically proposing or implementing pay rises of less than 2.5 per cent.

Employees of the University of Newcastle and University of Technology Sydney have voted to authorise industrial action. Peers at the universities of Canberra and Queensland may join them, while RMIT University staff have proposed work bans.

Some institutions have broken ranks by offering relatively generous proposals that other universities may be pressured to match. The University of Tasmania bypassed the regular enterprise bargaining process in offering its staff a 4.6 per cent pay increase with a A$1,000 sweetener for those earning less than A$80,000 a year.

Western Sydney University (WSU) is negotiating a deal that would reportedly give casual staff first rights to apply for 150 full-time academic positions. WSU says the deal is yet to be approved by employees.

That has not stopped the NTEU from proclaiming a “historic win @ WSU” including 150 new permanent jobs, a 25 per cent reduction in casual academic labour, 20 days of annual gender affirmation leave and pay rises of between 4.6 and 6.4 per cent this year. “If this were replicated at every university, we would see mass decasualisation,” the union tweeted.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Don't increase the salaries of levels D and E [my scale] and prioritise the poorer paid and over-worked instead for pay increases. NTEU refuses to do this. Cap senior management pay at c$350k. We would get better applicants. Follow Raewyn Connell, and re-nationalise the sector.

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