TOM GRIFFITHS: Staff staying the course for higher earning

As the University of Newcastle’s plans for a new campus at nearby Honeysuckle make clear, the University of Newcastle (UON) is an institution on the move.

The National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) view is that it is time to reset the balance at the University. After all, the way we spend money shows what we do – and don’t – value.

But buildings are only a small part of what it takes to make a great university.

It’s the staff who are the heart of the university. As Vice-Chancellor Professor Caroline McMillen has noted, the “university’s international reputation for excellence… is testament to… hardworking staff.”

But despite talking the talk about the university’s ‘hardworking staff’, management are yet to walk the walk on the reasonable and affordable claims to better support staff.

One example is domestic and family violence leave. An increasing number of universities in NSW now provide 20 days of additional, separate, paid domestic and family violence leave, to support employees. 

In contrast, management exhaust all of their personal leave – including sick leave – before accessing no more than 10 days of domestic and family violence leave.  

This is not an expensive claim and domestic and family violence leave will be accessed by a minority of staff, most of whom will be women in dire need.

For people who need it, domestic and family violence leave is a critically important support during what can be extremely difficult and dangerous times for them and their children.  

What a shining example domestic and family violence leave would set in our region, as part of our public commitment to gender equity, and to addressing this important public issue.

Another example is the insecurity of work at the university. Only one in three jobs at UON is ongoing, leaving two thirds of jobs as casual or contracted.

There are many steps management could take to get more of these staff into more secure employment, and at little cost.

At a strike meeting earlier this month, one colleague shared her experience of being employed on annual contracts for 20 years! This highly valued member of staff, along with many others like her, has lived with high a high level of job insecurity for a major part of her working life.

Is university management truly unable to find a better way to employ staff – ways that provide stability, and which reciprocate the commitment demonstrated by such staff?

Meanwhile, the university is in rude financial health. As the Chancellor noted in June, “we’ve… got a strong balance sheet, there’s no doubt about that.”

The National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) view is that it is time to reset the balance at the University. After all, the way we spend money shows what we do – and don’t – value.

It is in pursuit of goals like these that members of the NTEU have recently taken industrial action, after more than a year of enterprise bargaining.

Incremental steps have been made toward agreement, but there is some way to go. There is a real risk that progress will again stall because of uncertainty and change at senior levels.

The Vice-Chancellor’s departure date has chopped and changed. In 2017, her departure was brought forward to “the end of 2018.” In June this year, a departure date of 4 November was announced.

In August, this jumped forward again to September 21, with an Acting Vice-Chancellor serving in the interim.

Last week the date was brought forward again – to last week. 

Meanwhile, other senior management figures are also leaving, presumably for greener pastures. Management’s bargaining team is led by a Pro Vice-Chancellor who will depart the month after next, and another Pro Vice-Chancellor is slated to depart this month. 

The University of Newcastle general counsel’s departure has also been announced. It is feared this instability at the top may render management’s bargaining team rudderless for the foreseeable future.

This raises the very real prospect that bargaining will be left as unfinished business for the incoming Vice-Chancellor to mop-up when he arrives on campus in November.

The NTEU continues to bargain in good faith, underpinned by its commitment to defending the working conditions of all staff, which ultimately translate into good learning conditions for all students.

We will be staying the course – for as long as it takes.

Associate Professor Tom Griffiths is President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Newcastle Branch