Realism for optimists: debating the university Jobs Protection Framework

This is an overview of a longer pamphlet, available here.

This week National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) members are to take part in a national vote on an unprecedented industrial bargain with Vice Chancellors. The process of voting on the proposed ‘National Jobs Protection Framework’ has been rushed, and there is a lot of negative industrial affect circulating.

It is hard to think in a state of panic.

On one side, we have fear: the story goes that university revenues are devastated, and many thousands of jobs will be lost. Solidarity demands that everyone sacrifice some pay to keep casual and fixed-term colleagues employed – and the situation is so bleak that redundancies will be coming for continuing staff, too. Right now, there is nothing to stop management from shedding jobs, standing people down or reducing hours, so even a bitter deal is better than nothing.

On the other side, we have anger: the job of a union is not to help the bosses with the books, but to fight to defend pay and conditions and never surrender. The National Exec is selling us out. No concessions!

We are not convinced by either of these options. Now more than ever, we need to take a moment, calm down, and try to get a bit of perspective about our short- and long-run goals and options.

Our report aims to assess the Jobs Protection Framework and what we know about our industrial situations. Though we are not opposed to a deal as such, our view is that this agreement does not do what it intends to do.

The advocates of this Framework claim realism about our situation. But their proposed deal is not realistic about our longer run problem. We are optimistic that we have potential organising capabilities and that any deal should be designed to improve our leverage. This one doesn’t.

In some situations, we might collectively choose to trade pay for conditions and for levers that give us power in our workplaces. But this Framework has too many loopholes for us to be confident universities would translate savings from pay cuts into saved jobs.

The deal does not give us much leverage over management decisions. We certainly do not think the situation is so urgent that we should rush into this before more thorough discussion and information-gathering. Finally, it is a bad idea to promote public-sector pay cuts in the middle of a recession, and solidarity with the broader workforce calls on us to stand our ground.

Here are some taking points for union members putting forward the case for No. It’s a ‘not these concessions right now’ perspective for those of us who want an effective and hopeful strategy for the long run.

On the jobs apocalypse

  • The familiar 2020 job loss estimates from Universities Australia and NTEU National (21,000 full-time equivalent and 30,000, respectively) are back-of-the-envelope calculations based on questionable assumptions. They presume job losses will have a linear relationship to revenue falls, but it will actually be hard for universities to shed labour in the short run, and they are highly likely to run deficits and concentrate savings elsewhere, even without a deal.
  • For the same reasons, the estimate of 12,000 jobs saved by the deal is probably overblown: some of the savings from pay cuts are likely to take the place of deficits and government support. There is little leverage to ensure that pay cuts actually do translate into retained jobs.

On our evidence and uncertainty

  • Right now, no-one really knows what is going to happen to fee revenue in Semester 2, 2020 or 2021. It is truly a case of radical uncertainty. Rather than advertise the inevitability of lost work, we should establish the essential work we do, and use existing bases (e.g. education quality standards and workload policies) to question local decisions to cut employment budgets.
  • We should be more sceptical of the presumption that employment will fall in line with revenue. This is almost certainly not the case. Frontline jobs in teaching and other operations are harder to shed in the short run. We need to leverage our power here.

On the budget-labour nexus

  • The financial clauses are too loose. The only hard metric of financial strain set out in the Framework’s Expert Panel review tenets is revenue decline. But the universities most exposed to international student fees also tend to be the wealthiest, with the best financial options.
  • The Framework requires a university to satisfy a joint management-union Expert Panel that borrowing and asset sale options have been exhausted, but these are unclear grey areas involving trade-offs, so the union representatives will not find it easy to point to clear-cut alternatives. This part of the deal needs tighter definitions to make wealthy universities use their wealth.

On redundancies and stand-downs

  • The Framework does not limit redundancies in cases where they are ‘connected to a reduction in work’ – i.e., in most cases. Ironically, by boosting universities’ cashflow, the deal may make it easier for universities to pursue redundancies as they involve very expensive lump sum payments.
  • The JobKeeper-style payment is positive, but the benefit from this provision in the Framework depends on level of need in our institutions. Given the university campuses are opening up again, new rounds of stand-downs among continuing and fixed-term university staff seem unlikely at the moment.

On new ‘flexible’ workloads and duties

  • The ‘flexibility’ allowed for redeployments and increasing academic teaching loads creates new problems, and risks reducing aggregate volumes of casual work in the short term.
  • Clauses establishing ‘reasonable’ expectations of future contingent work are infeasible and unlikely to be used as an organising tool.

On the old and new problems for contingent staff

  • The labour shedding strategies universities are likely to use in the short run are explicitly allowed under the terms of the Framework. Clause 32 allows management to trim offerings and free up continuing staff to cover remaining work that contingent staff would have done.
  • Non-renewal or non-offers of fixed-term and casual contracts is the main way university labour will be shed next semester and probably beyond. There is no obstacle in the Framework to prevent it – in fact it explicitly allows for it.

On timing and our biggest bargaining chip

  • In proposing pay cuts, we are playing a major industrial bargaining card too hastily, and with too little leverage in return. We need more time to negotiate something better and for internal democracy.
  • The more serious threats to university staff will come in the next year or so as we enter the next enterprise bargaining rounds, and as universities plan restructurings to cope with likely sustained falls in international student revenue. The ‘jobs apocalypse’ is not so urgent that we must abandon our commitment to organising for power. Neither top-down advocacy nor mobilising alone will get us where we want to go.

On the potential of this moment for member-led strategy

  • There is a lot of angst, but also a lot of energy within our branches right now. We can channel it better with organising and deliberative democracy.
  • Our need for a longer-term vision and member-led strategy is urgent. Without a plan for the long run, we are letting panic stand in the way of a confident step toward enterprise bargaining in 2021.
  • We need to build our branches’ capacity and develop plans for the short and long run together.

We really do have potential bases for real workplace leverage, beyond the moral suasion of rallies and petitions.

Firstly, universities depend on our goodwill. We all know that our real workloads routinely spill over the bounds of the hours we are paid for, and we are constantly being asked for more. It’s time for that to stop, and our existing enterprise agreements give us solid backing for that. Workloads campaigns are a promising way to organise: the strains are felt by almost everyone, and they strike at the heart of the budget-labour nexus. Our time must be seen as firm a constraint on management as financial budgets.

Secondly, universities still have at least the shells of self-governance bodies. These are ready-made venues for questioning management and talking among ourselves about how our institutions should operate. From department meetings to Academic Board and Senate, we should be using whatever openings we have to demand financial information and put pressure on management. There are always choices to be made, even in the tightest financial circumstances. Many of these committees have become rubber-stamps, but they don’t have to be – we should be talking among ourselves and organising to occupy whatever levels of governance we can.

Third, branches are also ripe for renewal. If you’re reading this and you’re not on your branch committee, you should look up its members and reach out. So many branches have vacancies that need filling. The conspicuous absence of senior university staff on our branch committees is striking and our Arts and Social Sciences bias needs to be corrected. However, sitting on the committees is not the only way to build our organisation. You can organise in your own work units, or join a Cases Committee. We need a broad mix of knowledge and influence to build our branches.

And we need to reconnect strategy with genuine member organising. Elected national officers and their staff have developed a strategy for us, because we are alienated from one another. Moving forward, we will need to bridge the divide between rank-and-file members and NTEU officials and staff.

Framework or no, we are going to have to find ways to reconnect and lead from our branches.


Image: Richard McKenzie

Mike Beggs

Mike Beggs is senior lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney.

More by Mike Beggs ›

Beck Pearse

Beck Pearse is lecturer in sociology at the Australian National University, and before that she held a scholarly teaching fellowship at the University of Sydney 2017–20.

More by Beck Pearse ›

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  1. Article is correct in mentioning that Framework explicitly and undeniably sacrifices the jobs of thousands of casualised university workers (clause 32). But, article does not acknowledge that this has happened already in large scale with cancellation of courses everywhere, and that the casualisation of academics and professionals was never the priority of NTEU and NTEU permanent staff members. Article, like NTEU, does not recognise that casualised workers has been the majority of staff in Australian unis for a while, so the optimism is for a few. In a perverse way, casualisation is in practice ‘over’ at unis, while the neoliberal destruction of the right to education and of publicly owned institutions, will go ahead. Article insightfully sees the fear, which will probably convince fulltimers that Framework (or management decisions) will save their jobs, just by comparing themselves to the lesser beings, their formerly casualised academics and staff colleagues.

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