‘Students should not be used as chess pieces between bargaining powers’, said the RMIT University Student Union last week, referring to Thursday’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) strike at the university.
The 24-hour strike followed two months of escalating tensions in a long-running dispute between RMIT’s vocational teachers and the university. In August, having previously voted overwhelmingly against a non-union enterprise bargaining agreement, teachers were asked to vote on an agreement negotiated with the Australian Education Union (AEU). We were shocked when RMIT withdrew the week-long ballot on its second day, but not surprised to learn that it, too, was heading for resounding defeat.
The fact is, we teachers are teetering on faultlines characteristic of today’s universities: between university traditions, and government funding and strategy; between knowledge and skill, theory and practice, education and training; between students as learners and as ‘paying customers’.
At RMIT, a dual-sector university, the distinction between the once discrete TAFE and University has been elided, even if systemic differences between the two areas are proving harder to dismantle. Nowadays, the university proudly advertises its industry connections, and reinvents degrees around studios and fieldwork – hallmarks of vocational teaching – while enthusiastically promoting pathways between Vocational and Higher education. These developments have been embraced by most teachers, because they’re viewed as a strong foundation for a more flexible, globally relevant and forward-thinking education.
But here’s the rub. These established strengths of vocational programs and teachers have spawned new qualifications such as associate degrees. These hybrid programs, though technically within higher education, follow the distinct vocational education calendar (two 16-week teaching semesters), draw on established vocational pedagogy – and pay their teachers like oldtimey trade-school teachers. All while promising students more. More industry connections. More time one-on-one with teachers. More access to hands-on learning. More, that is, of what vocational teaching traditionally excels at.
The Australian Education Union – which had always represented TAFE teachers – baulked at representing those vocational teachers who had begun working within Higher Education, which meant we turned to the NTEU for support. Their willingness to represent vocational teachers across both sectors has seen a dramatic increase in membership, and a renewed energy and solidarity amongst vocational teachers.
Though it’s by no means our only complaint, differing superannuation is a starkly symbolic reminder of the second-class status of RMIT’s vocational teachers, and by implication their programs, qualifications and students. While our higher education colleagues receive 17% super (as do general staff across the university), vocational teachers receive only 9.5%. Workloads, conditions, facilities and resourcing show similar disparities. An offered 5.1% wage rise over four years pales beside the 15.9% won by academic staff.
In a panicked response before last week’s strike, the university offered a sweetened deal to vocational staff teaching federally funded Higher Education qualifications. But it was too little, too late. Apart from being unworkable – many teachers work across sectors, often shifting from semester to semester – this was widely greeted as a blatant and insulting effort to divide and conquer vocational teaching staff.
Last week, the university’s student union, RUSU, issued a formal statement of concern that strike action would disadvantage students. Leaving aside that their reference to final assessments and exams seemed to allude to a traditional university calendar and assessment structure rather than to vocational education’s timetable and pedagogy (with exams rarely used, and the teaching semester still with four weeks to run), most of our students have been supportive of our efforts to improve our working conditions.
Our students seem to understand something the RUSU and the university should too: students will only benefit when teachers – currently expected to teach over twenty face-to-face hours a week – are given adequate time for preparation, consultations, assessment, course and program development, and their own professional development. What’s more, our many terrific sessional teachers deserve that appropriate support and remuneration, too.