The Tertiary Education Union reports today that some universities are under great pressure to keep the wages and salaries of university staff as low as possible.
The government’s document Expectations for Pay and Employment Conditions in the State Sector seems to be placing pressure on many tertiary-education institutions to depress wages rather than face explaining higher wage bills to the state services commissioner. The document, which covers all employment negotiations in the state sector, calls for fiscally sustainable outcomes and the avoidance of flow-on implications across the public sector.
There is some ambiguity about the extent to which tertiary-education institutions, which have traditionally stood at arm’s length from the rest of the state sector, are affected by the expectations. Nevertheless, the Tertiary Education Union’s national secretary, Sharn Riggs, says there is increasing anecdotal evidence of concern among tertiary-education workers that institutions may adjust their negotiating position because of the requirement to consult with the commission.
Students of course will still have to pay considerable amounts for thier education and universities will be under even greater pressure to breach the 5% fee maxima cap over the coming years. Meanwhile the government is looking to further reduce its contribution to what is undoubtably a public good, as well as private benefit.
Among the expectations placed upon the state sector are a requirement to consult the commission before implementing conditions that will result in increased costs of employment; another to try to target any recruitment and retention issues that arise without fuelling wage inflation and with regard to potential flow-on implications; and an instruction to avoid backdating terms of settlement.
If an agency wishes to pursue a course of action which could be seen to be at odds with these expectations, it may need approval from its governing ministers of state services and finance. Ms Riggs says that it is important the CEOs and vice-chancellors continue to bargain in good faith with their employees, despite the restrictions placed on them by the government’s expectations.
University staff have already gone through some very difficult times over the last few years, with staff being lost as courses are cut to maximise the profit incentive. Those cuts have resulted in core humanities, politics and other courses being cut or severely restricted with the focus shifted to business and computing. Universities risk losing some of thier core functions in research and as leaders in critical analysis.
“Tertiary education is one area where business is up rather than down. Our members are doing more work and accommodating more students. They won’t look favourably on employment negotiations that roll back pay or conditions because of the economic environment,” Ms Riggs said. “Lower wages will not solve our economic crisis, the solution will come from more skills training and education, which our members can provide and for which they should be fairly rewarded.”
So right at the time when teritary education will be a key means of managing unemployment, so as to keep building the capability and expertise of people as jobs become scarce, univeristies will be under even greater pressure to cuts costs and ultimately staff to save money.
National is pursuing its plan to cut government spending but in those areas we most need certainty and consistency inorder to ride out the recession.