Union chief’s farewell warning: bureaucratic management pushing universities to crisis-point

Grahame McCulloch is giving activism away. After serving the National Tertiary Education Union as national secretary for all of its 25 years, and as official of a predecessor union for ten years before that, he will retire in October.

In his farewell to members he looks back to find much in the creation of a mass university system, which the higher education community, and all Australians can be proud of, including “dramatically increased,” “opportunities for working class people, women, recent migrants, and very importantly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

Mr McCulloch also points to NTEU achievements in wages (“salaries are amongst the highest in the world”) and conditions and the way, “collective agreements have sharply circumscribed managerial prerogative.”

“These achievements have been possible because of the union’s highly democratic structure, the active participation of our members and the incremental but continued growth in the union’s membership.”

But he warns that the present palls. Falls in public funding have increased the fee burden on students and widened the divide between richer and poorer universities. And university cultures are transformed, for the worse.

There is an exponential growth of an “out of touch (and sometimes parasitic) senior executive elite.”

“Their inflated salaries reflect neither the contribution nor, in many instances, the capability of this bureaucratic management caste.”

Academic and professional staff, “are assessed against sterile metric-driven performance indicators that bear little relationship to the core teaching, research and community service obligations of universities.”

Professional autonomy is eroding and workloads and insecure employment are increasing,” he warns.

For the next generation of leaders he points to “big strides” in gender equity and equalising pay and promotions for academic women but not those on the professional staff, saying “there is more to be done for both groups.” And he nominates “rising workloads and increasing casual employment” as the “two biggest challenges.”

And overall, he warns the union must face-up to managements.

“The system is approaching, but has not yet reached, a crisis point.  There is still scope for university staff to assert their professional rights and to have their voice heard within most university decision-making processes.  But this could all but disappear if there is not an urgent change in the management culture of universities.”


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