No Santa for Murdoch Staff

After seven months of negotiations with the NTEU, Murdoch University took the unprecedented step on December 9th of applying to the Fair Work Commission to terminate the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the University.

This marks the first time an Australian university has sought to terminate an agreement. It follows in the footsteps of Griffin Coal, whose successful application to the FWC to terminate the union agreement has substantially reduced employee wages. Apparently, Murdoch management has determined that its staff belong on Santa’s naughty list. Is it just a coincidence, or has Murdoch teamed up with Griffin to deliver university staff a great big “lump of coal” just in time for Christmas?

The existing agreement remains in force until it is either replaced or terminated. Regardless of Murdoch’s financial picture, it seems unlikely that it is threatened with closure, as was Griffin Coal. In that case, the commissioner decided in favour of the mine’s application because it was in the public interest for the mine to stay open. Nevertheless, if Murdoch’s application is approved by the FWC, it will not only adversely affect academic and professional staff at Murdoch, but is likely to create a tsunami effect for industrial relations across the entire university sector and beyond.

In the absence of an enterprise agreement, wages and conditions need only meet the minimum safety-net standards: in this case, the higher education awards and the National Employment Standards. Murdoch management would then have sole discretionary power to decide which, if any, of the existing conditions employees would continue to receive. According to NTEU General Secretary, Grahame McCulloch, university management could reduce wages from 25 to 39 percent; decrease redundancy entitlements by one third for academics and 80 percent for professional staff; remove all academic workload regulation; abolish rights to academic and intellectual freedom; and eliminate employer provided paid parental leave.

At stake are not only wages and conditions, but the larger question of how the corporatism of Murdoch management tears at the fundamental fabric of public universities. It is perhaps the most extreme example of a pattern recognisable to academics across the sector. Rather than view education as a public good, most universities these days think of themselves as businesses, and reward management accordingly, with salaries comparable to some CEOs. Hence, students are referred to as “clients” or “customers,” as if there is no difference between a university and a fast-food restaurant. Academics often feel that management views them simply as employees rather than as equal members of the institution. “Consultation” seems mostly, if not entirely, for show.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Murdoch situation involves academic freedom, given that the termination of the agreement would entail the elimination of its academic freedom clause. Academic freedom is a necessary and vital component of intellectual inquiry. Its effacement would run contrary to the conception of publicly funded universities. As a case in point, the University of Queensland recently sought to suppress the research of an economics professor who exposed the racist behavior of some Brisbane bus drivers. The Fair Work Commission determined that the university had violated the enterprise agreement. If this agreement had not existed, the outcome would likely have been far worse.

Academics strongly believe that universities are not profit-making degree factories. Fair wages, workload regulation, and academic freedom are under attack. The principle of education as a public good must be defended.

Chris Peterson

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