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Rumbling in the (contracted) ranks of Australia’s most elite university

How is it that a university with close to 17,000 employees offers barely a quarter of them job security? Ben Silvester reports on simmering staff concerns on the University of Melbourne campus.

Rumbling in the (contracted) ranks of Australia’s most elite university

A protest at the University of Melbourne on November 1 over casual pay and conditions. Picture: NTEU

Story by Benjamin Silvester
 

“How does this happen?” asks Sara Brocklesby.

How is it that a university with close to 17,000 employees offers barely a quarter of them job security?

And, she wonders, why is an institution that relies equally on its academic and administrative staff trying to play one side off against the other?

“There is a kind of wholesale gaslighting exercise going on,” said Brocklesby, a marketing and communications manager at the University of Melbourne, and a representative of the National Tertiary Education Union. “The expectation that you can’t complain because you’re so lucky to be here.

“What is sad is that we all do feel really lucky, we all feel that, and I think that gets abused,” she said.

In a national tertiary sector worth over $40 billion a year, the University of Melbourne leads the pack. It has been the top Australian university in the international rankings for much of the past decade. But this success has come at a cost.

“Oh look nobody enjoyed, it … nobody had a very good time,” said former vice-chancellor Glyn Davis of cuts that cost hundreds of administrative jobs. Picture: Jack Banister

“Oh look nobody enjoyed, it … nobody had a very good time,” said former vice-chancellor Glyn Davis of cuts that cost hundreds of administrative jobs. Picture: Jack Banister

The rankings system heavily favours research-intensive universities. The more high-quality research a university can produce, the higher its ranking. But producing high-quality research is an expensive business. To keep the research funds flowing, the university has had to find savings in other areas, and the staff have borne the brunt. Simmering distress around pay and security in the highly-casualised ranks prompted another protest rally by tutors on campus on November 1.

The first major cost-saving initiative was called the Business Improvement Program or BIP. Mere mention of the program still raises the hackles of Melbourne University’s senior management. “Oh, look, nobody enjoyed it,” former vice-chancellor Glyn Davis conceded when I interviewed him earlier this year, “nobody had a very good time.”

The program, deployed between July 2013 and February 2015, involved a complete overhaul of the university’s administration, which management viewed as “inefficient”. Over 500 administrative staff were sacked, with many more having to re-apply for their jobs, often at a lower pay grade.

It was the biggest staff cut in the history of the university, but it received surprisingly little media coverage and staff outcry at the time. Newly discovered documents suggest this was no fluke. It all came down to the way management sold the restructure to staff.

University staff were first told about BIP in December 2013, but the story about quite what it was changed depending on whether you were part of the academic staff or the administrative staff.

For the administrative staff, the program was framed as a way of improving work processes, centralising systems and gaining efficiency.

Academic staff were told that the administrative system was too resource intensive, and that BIP would find efficiencies that would save tens of millions of dollars, and, most importantly, that 80 per cent of these savings would go directly into academic research.

Five hundred administrative staff would be sacked, but the academic staff would have access to resources that other Australian universities could only dream of.

This trade-off became known behind closed doors as BIP’s “grand bargain”, as it was described in a leaked confidential review. The review’s author, a senior fellow in the university’s Centre for Vocational and Educational Policy, applauded the strategy as vital to the program’s success: “The ‘grand bargain’ aspects of BIP, concerning the re-investment of savings, served to sustain general support for the program from leaders of faculties and graduate schools.”

Mark Considine, the current provost, who was on BIP’s three-person steering committee, confirmed when interviewed that reinvestment of the savings back into academic coffers was the main reason BIP didn’t end in failure.

For administrative staff, it was a bitter pill. According to Brocklesby, it inflamed the already strained relationship between the university’s academic and administrative staff.

“As a divide-and-conquer strategy, it was very successful,” she says.

 

Senior management considered BIP a huge success. The program produced $80 million in savings during its first full year, a figure that has continued to grow. But several staff interviewed for this story argue that the program only worked by forcing academics to handle the administrative minutiae previously handled by dedicated employees.

A noticeboard at the University of Melbourne reflects ongoing staff concerns. Picture: Jack Banister

A noticeboard at the University of Melbourne reflects ongoing staff concerns. Picture: Jack Banister

Margaret Simons, who directed the university’s Centre for Advancing Journalism at the time of the reforms and has since moved to Monash University, recalls that each month she would have to spend a full day coding every single expense for the centre: “I am there at an associate professor level, and I’m essentially doing time-consuming data entry.”

Most academics have had to take on the added administrative load without letting it affect their other teaching, research and administrative obligations, which means doing it in their own time. It has left many regretting the ‘grand bargain’ they accepted.

Just two years later, the university rolled out the same approach during negotiations for a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

Typically, the bargaining process would begin with university and union negotiators meeting up to share a “list of claims” that includes the key things they want tackled in the agreement. But at the first meeting, in February 2017, the university had already drawn up two completed draft agreements: one offer for the academic employees and one for the administrative staff.

There were obvious advantages for the university in splitting the EBA. It would mean halving the bargaining power of each group, and doubling the work of the union bargaining team. Most importantly though, and especially after BIP’s grand bargain, it would again drive a wedge between  academic and administrative staff.

The two draft agreements featured small but important differences. While the academic agreement was very similar to the previous EBA, the agreement for administrative staff placed extremely tough conditions on basic incremental pay rises that staff receive each year they remain at the university.

In its draft agreement, the university proposed that increments for all mid-level administrative staff should be subject to the staff member receiving an “outstanding” – the highest possible rating – in their annual performance review. Meanwhile, for upper-level administrative staff, “incremental progression [would] not apply” at all. It was effectively an indefinite wage freeze.

In a testy chain of emails between the university’s lead negotiator, Sean Hogan, and then National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) general secretary Grahame McCulloch, McCulloch argued that the split agreement was an attempt at “enhancing your negotiating position by dividing the workforce”.

But after the experience of BIP, academic staff were wary of striking a deal at the expense of the administrative staff. “Academics regretted the bargain they had made in BIP,” says Brocklesby, “and they said they wouldn’t be deceived a second time.”

In mid-2018, after 18 months of tense wrangling, the university eventually signed off on a single agreement covering both academic and administrative staff.

For the staff, this was a victory. But with more than half of the university’s 17,000 employees on casual contracts, and another quarter on fixed-term contracts, most still struggle for job security.

All this talk of mass sackings, grand bargains and insecure employment might make it seem like the University of Melbourne is short on money. It’s not.

In the past decade, the university has spent almost $2 billion on new buildings alone. High rankings have attracted a torrent of international student fees, yet the university has been careful to invest in buildings rather than staff.

“It’s [like] a mining boom,” Glyn Davis told The Citizen, “and like all mining booms it comes to an end, so you invest it in things that will matter into the future.” For the university’s senior management, it is buildings that will matter into the future.

“What you don’t do,” Davis added, “[is] load up the institution with expensive permanent staff, because you know that later this will be a significant problem.”

A version of this report was co-published by The Age.

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