It could be a one-off but it might a precedent for wage cuts across the country

Staff at Murdoch U have six months before management can start cutting pay. Experts at universities across the country are watching to see what happens now

What happened: The Fair Work Commission has decided Murdoch U and the NTEU should start from scratch in negotiating a new enterprise agreement but if they don’t reach agreement in six months management can reduce what people are paid under the old deal.

What it means: Some higher education observers say the Commission’s decision was less about Murdoch U’s poor finances than the need for negotiations to start afresh and that university managements now have a big opportunity to strip costs out of new agreements.

“The way is open for many universities to try to negotiate improved arrangements in their EAs and if this proves impossible to negotiate with the union, they can look to press the reset button. Not too quickly, but in a reasonably short time. A reset and a chance to genuinely reform arrangements is beckoning,” says a long serving management adviser.

Not that many universities necessarily will, others argue. Yes, Victoria U has already successfully claimed in the Commission that financial exigency justifies a new teaching structure but at the University of Sydney it is pretty much business as usual in enterprise bargaining. Management is offering four annual 2.1 per cent increases plus a $500 signing bonus to some of the highest paid university staff in the country. While the union says this is not enough, a deal seems assured and one without significant rollbacks of conditions – management’s big productivity push is to create 220 teaching only academic positions.

What happens next: There is general agreement that ff university managements do not seize the opportunity, the feds will. “If the sector fails to turn a major tactical victory into a series of important strategic gains then the feds will feel justified in cutting funds and possibly in meddling more closely with the way universities are run. We can’t pretend it is just about Murdoch,” an observer present at the creation of the enterprise bargaining system suggests.

The next move: will be by the National Tertiary Education Union. Late Friday the union’s national leadership emailed members that, “the union is not aware of any other university currently seeking to follow this same path.  However Federal President Jeannie Rea, General Secretary Grahame McCulloch and Assistant GS Matthew McGowan added, “ (the) NTEU is assessing the decision and will consider options over the coming weeks. Independent analysts say it is hard to see the union not asking the FWC full bench to overturn the Murdoch ruling. Observers are split on the chances of an appeal succeeding. Some say the existing ruling is carefully constructed and close “to bomb proof”, but one veteran of industrial tribunal travails replies that the NTEU wrote the manual on convincing the Fair Work Commission.

As for staff at Murdoch, who worry what happens when management’s six month guarantee of existing wages and conditions expires, the NTEU says it “is committed to negotiating a replacement agreement at Murdoch University that, with union members support, can recover much of the damage that has just been done.” “It depends how they define ‘much’ a system watcher replies.