Enterprise bargaining was introduced to higher education in 1993. In the nearly thirty years since then, it has become a regular item on the higher education calendar. However, rather than delivering on agreements customised to the context of individual institutions, there has been a sameness in outcomes for each successive round of enterprise bargaining with few exceptions. “First mover” institutions set the benchmark for others that followed, aided by strong coordination and assiduous vigilance on the part of unions.

The disruption created by the COVID-19 pandemic creates an opportunity to reset the role that enterprise agreements can play in supporting the implementation of strategy, leadership and engagement with staff within Australian universities. It is serendipitous that a fresh round of enterprise bargaining will commence in the middle of 2021, at a time when the immediate shock of the implications of COVID-19 has passed, when its longer-term consequences are becoming more apparent, and Australian universities are having to move from the “respond’ to the “rebuild” phase.

The perverse combination of scarcity of resources and the imperative of technological change creates the possibility of both institutional and union leaderships to break out of past enterprise bargaining mindsets.

There are six approaches that might be taken

Build and maintain commitment to staff

* offer salary increases contingent on revenue growth, recognising that to do otherwise in the current resourcing climate will only lead to further rounds of job losses

* offer periodic employment contracts for certain categories of teaching staff currently employed as casuals. As well as providing increased job certainty, contracts might provide for increased responsibilities to be performed and the right to re-engagement when the same or similar teaching requirements occur

Ensure fair treatment for casual academic staff

* one factor giving rise to recent examples of underpayment of casual staff is that the nature of work required of casual teaching staff has changed making historic methods of pay calculation outmoded or excessively complex

* universities might collaborate with unions to survey the present nature of academic work, determine the continuing relevance of current payment structures and develop new rates of pay where warranted

Retain existing staff talent by reducing wastage and cost of redundancies

* introduce limited furlough provisions that in specified circumstances allow staff to be stood down or work for reduced hours of employment and pay. This would provide an alternative to the bluntness and high cost of current conditions as demonstrated recently by the large loss of casual and fixed term staff and the significant financial and other costs associated with extremely generous redundancy provisions.

Equip staff to navigate current and future challenges

* flexible working arrangements, including working from home has become a new norm but is not generally provided for within industrial agreements.

* universities have good strategic reasons to provide properly structured policies and practices that support the future of “blended working” and “blended learning.” In doing so, they might seek to ensure all staff have the equipment, knowledge and skills to be effective in a rapidly evolving digital environment.

Match academic and professional career structures to emerging needs

* In industrial terms, the nature and scope of academic work is defined by the Minimum Standards for Academic Levels (MSALS), reflecting the narrower scope of academic work in the early 1990s. Professional staff job classification levels were also developed in the 1990s and, although they may have better stood the test of time, also appear in need of review, particularly with the rise of ‘third space’ staff who work across traditional academic and professional roles.

– A major overhaul of standards and classification is required. While beyond the scope in individual institutions, enterprise bargaining provides a forum for the importance of these issues to be articulated and shared.

Simplify enterprise agreements

* University agreements are typically some 100 pages in length, seemingly added to in each successive enterprise bargaining round, often morphing into unwieldy and prescriptive requirements around practice and process.

* A joint review of agreements with a view to simplifying excessive detail would be beneficial and help refocus on important contemporary issues.

* Enterprise agreements can play a key role in driving a focus on strategy providing staff and unions are adequately engaged. They can also act as an impediment to achieving reform. Exceptional and inclusive leadership is required to achieve the former.

The forthcoming round of enterprise bargaining is probably the most important since 1993. It will be an opportunity missed if this round is not successful in embracing reform and reshaping the nature of university work.

The authors are all from the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education. The complete version of this article is now on the MCSHE website


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