Pay cuts to keep jobs: the tertiary education union’s deal with universities explained


The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) last week announced its negotiated draft agreement with universities. The deal aims to save at least 12,000 university jobs at risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic in return for temporary salary reductions of between 5% and 15% for some staff.

The negotiations with the NTEU were led by Vice Chancellor of Charles Sturt University, Professor Andrew Vann, who is also the president of the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA). Also involved in the talks were La Trobe University’s Professor John Dewar, Monash University’s Professor Margaret Gardiner and The University of Western Australia’s Professor Jane den Hollander.

The so-called National Jobs Protection Framework has the support of peak body Universities Australia, but it not compulsory for all universities. Each university can individually decide whether to join the agreement.

What’s in the deal?

The union estimates universities will lose A$5 billion this year due to a reduction in international student enrolments. Many of the jobs at risk, particularly when it comes to research staff, will be be disproportionately borne by early career researchers and women.

The federal government has excluded universities from access to the JobKeeper scheme or any assistance offered to other industries. It has only guaranteed A$18 billion for domestic students already budgeted for, and a further A$100 million for discounted short courses in health services, teaching and IT. This latter funding is shared with private providers and uptake is uncertain.

The jobs protection framework is limited – until June 30 2021 – initially. It is founded on the the principles

  • no university employee will be involuntarily stood down without pay. Affected staff get 30-50% of pay with the JobKeeper rate as the floor
  • some staff at the hardest hit universities may have salaries cut by up to 15%. The vast majority of affected staff will receive between 90-95% of their former salary. But the first $30,000 is exempt, and people on lower wages will not be affected
  • temporary salary reductions will only happen after non-staff costs and management salaries have been reduced. Some vice chancellors – including Charles Darwin University’s Simon Maddocks and Deakin University’s Iain Martin – have already taken cuts of 20-30%.
  • non-wage conditions such as superannuation and leave continue to accrue at the standard rate
  • displaced casual and fixed-term staff will be prioritised for new work
  • redundancies will only happen in cases where a university can explicitly prove there is no work.

The framework allows employees to adjust working hours around family commitments and to shift from full to part-time work. It commits universities to pay out-of-pocket expenses for working from home, and protects probation and performance evaluations from pandemic impact.

Importantly, the NTEU will oversee the implementation of temporary wage cuts in return for no employee being involuntarily stood down. The oversight will be done through joint university-NTEU committees, and a national expert panel will assess university claims of loss.

Other potential staff sacrifices in the deal include

  • deferring 2020 salary increases and reclassification and promotion pay rises
  • being directed to reduce work by up to 10%
  • temporary transfers to other duties
  • being directed to take some annual or long service leave.

The agreement attempts to protect the most vulnerable workers. Casuals account for about 44% of around a total of 139,500 academic staff. If converting these actual staff numbers to full time equivalent numbers, then casuals account for 33% of 62,000 full time equivalent academic staff.

Casual staff will be exempt from any wage cuts. Along with fixed term employees, they will retain work if their work remains to be done. Casuals may also receive two weeks of paid COVID-19 leave.

Not everyone is happy

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) – which competes with the NTEU for non-academic staff including administrative staff, student services and library staff – fiercely oppose the deal. CPSU representatives have argued while a pay cut may not mean much to academics on high salaries, it may be life-altering for many of their members.

Union figures show the average salary for full-time staff is A$110,000. In the worst case scenario for universities that opt-in to the deal, this salary would be cut by A$8,000. But it’s worth noting many staff receive much less than the average, and would have proportionally smaller cuts.

Some universities have already bowed out of the deal. The University of Melbourne, which is facing a A$400 million 2020 budget downturn, claims it doesn’t foresee stand-downs, forced reduction of hours or substantial pay cuts.

Its governing body also believes the agreement’s requirements conflict with its responsibility “to manage and control the affairs of the university”.

The Australian Catholic University’s Vice Chancellor, Greg Craven, also said last week the ACU were not interested in signing up to the deal, telling the Campus Morning Mail:

Such deals are being pushed by and designed for institutions facing vastly worse circumstances than ACU, with high enrolments of overseas students, and losses of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Other universities that may not sign up to the deal  include Macquarie and Murdoch University, and the University of Southern Queensland, Sunshine Coast and Sydney. Some of these are less exposed to the loss of international students.

But the University of Sydney – which is part of Australia’s Group of Eight universities, which stand to lose the most from the loss of international students – has previously said it aims to make savings by reviewing casual staffing budgets – the people the NTEU deal seeks to protect.

Universities that don’t sign up to the deal will be subject to enterprise bargaining clauses governing redundancies and other changes. Otherwise they may seek variations to the agreement, which the NTEU will resist.

Author Bio: Ray Markey is Emeritus Professor at Macquarie University