All (finally) quiet on the UWS front

As anticipated yesterday, it looks there is deal on enterprise bargaining at the University of Western Sydney with the campus NTEU calling off today’s strike. According to the union’s lead bargainer Dr David Burchell, management has agreed to a 3 per cent per annum pay rise through to 2017 with a retrospective payment to cover 2013, when there was no agreement. Weekly teaching hours are capped at 13 for “regular academic staff” and 16-17 for teaching focused roles. There is also good news for some sessionals, with 50 ongoing teaching only jobs, including a conversion process for existing fixed term staff. Dr Burchell says the union dropped its claim for a two semester teaching year and agreed to “some flexibility” to the teaching ceiling in “exceptional circumstances.” After a year of grinding negotiation the deal was quickly adopted following the intervention of new vice chancellor Barney Glover for management and NTEU National Secretary Grahame McCulloch. Briefings for union members are on tomorrow.

Watch for the wizardry

Expect Mr McCulloch to work his wizardry over the next couple of weeks at other universities where bargaining is stalled. Only the craziest-brave campus union leaders will want to be bargaining on the morning after the budget, lest a tough outcome for higher education gives universities a chance to cry poor and pull back on wage rises. Then again maybe rank and file unionists are not for turning. We will find shortly out what the mood is at UTS, where a ballot on protected industrial action closes today.

Attention deficit

Universities Australia was quick to endorse the Japan Free Trade Agreement yesterday, saying it was “exploring models” for joint degrees, “identifying synergies in respective research strengths” and “developing faculty and staff exchange programs.” UA chief Belinda Robinson is among the great and the good accompanying the prime minister in his trade trip, as is Group of Eight chair Ian Young and the vice chancellors of Uni Melbourne, Glyn Davis and Uni Sydney, Michael Spence. This may explain why there is so little comment on Andrew Norton’s bad HELP debt plan. As far as I know only Warren Bebbington from the University of Adelaide and the Regional Universities Network’s have spoken up in support. This seems strange, while the chance of the government handing over extra cash collected by the Norton proposals to universities is optimistic it is a case worth making.

Debt collecting at a distance

But analysts are emerging, with Conor King from the Innovative Research Universities providing the first considered critique of the Norton Plan. Mr King says that the plan to capture HELP émigrés is good, but still has “furry elements”. What to do with debtors who move overseas, but at some stage want to come home he asks. “A debt to the government is a serious matter. Are passports cancelled? Consular assistance refused? People who return briefly seized at the immigration counter (entering or departing)? The end point is a set of individuals living as HECS defaulter exiles, scared to return home to mum’s death bed,” he warns. Norton’s plan is “a good step forward” but Mr King suggests inter government agreements, so that debtors repay through the tax system of their country of residence, is a better idea

In the tent better than out

I am a fan of Charles Sturt University VC Andy Vann (and not just for his being photographed last week with Kieran the Walking Condom (CMM March 31)). Professor Vann knows the difference between politics and policy and presents substance not spin when addressing the former, as in a piece on the cause of growth in sessional staff on the excellent Actual Casual blog. Professor Vann argues the research obsession, among administrations and academics means universities commit resources to it and leave a great deal of teaching to casual staff. Fair enough, but he also acknowledges that sessionals are preferred because they are cheaper than full time staff and that while unions demand more money for their (permanent) members managements sign off on the deals. “We are faced with a cost problem which, other things being equal, requires a reduction in the cost of teaching labour if universities are to keep their budgets balanced … . That can be achieved by extracting more work from existing staff or by finding a way to employ cheaper staff.” Which is fine for everybody except for most sessional staff who are on the outside and likely to stay there.

Administrative burden

The University of Sydney branch of the NTEU has picked up two hundred members, half of them general staffers. “With the University management planning change proposals around a new student system in some of these areas, this growth and activity will help the NTEU protect general staff conditions and jobs,” the union says. This is in response to Vice Chancellor Michael Spence’s commitment to making student administration a priority, particularly his promise to ensure academics only handle administration of academic issues, implying less work for them and more for general staff. But how many members does it have overall? The NTEU does not discuss membership but informed estimates suggest it is around 2000 people at Sydney, around a quarter of overall staff.