UK-AUSTRALIA: Industrial action looms

Higher education unions in Britain and Australia are demanding hefty pay rises for their members, warning their universities they will face industrial action unless agreement is reached.

In the UK, the University and College Union sent out ballot papers on 1 May after warning employers that higher education could be brought to a standstill if its members voted for industrial action over job cuts and a low pay offer.

In Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union has called for a 20% pay increase over the next three years even before the government hands down its budget next week. Universities say the claim is beyond their capacity to meet under present straitened circumstances although the University of Sydney last week reached agreement with the union after offering a 17% rise.

But Sydney's counterpart, the University of New South Wales, flatly ruled out any increase of that size saying there was no way it would give in to the union's demands. UNSW Vice-chancellor Professor Fred Hilmer said the call for a 20% pay rise between 2009 and 2012 was equivalent to a 9% annual increase.

"It is completely out of step with the current economic climate and the university's financial situation," Hilmer said. Instead, the university awarded its staff a 4.5% rise this year.

Down south, Victorian universities face widespread industrial action with academics at six institutions voting last week in favour of strikes or other forms of protest. As well as a 20 per cent pay rise over three years, the NTEU wants restoration of conditions of employment that were lost when the former conservative government forced universities to offer staff individual contracts.

In Britain, the University and College Union was waiting on the outcome of its ballot, due by 22 May, which will determine if industrial action takes place. Employers have urged the union to reconsider an "ill-judged and inappropriate ballot at this early stage in the pay negotiation process", while organisations representing the universities said they were deeply worried at the prospect of disruption to student examinations this summer.

Union General Secretary Sally Hunt said employers had refused to act as the crisis over jobs deteriorated and had forced members to ballot for industrial action. The UCU joined forces last week with the National Union of Students and other trade unions in a joint demand for a job security agreement. Hunt said at least 100 universities had signalled their intention to cut jobs.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association accused the union of attempting to publicise the ballot as if it were an issue of job protection when it was mainly about pay. This was confusing to the sector, it said.

Although the UCU wants an 8% pay rise, the UCEA has offered 0.3%. The association said in a statement that although its offer was "modest, it is realistic and responsible, underpinned by a careful sector-wide analysis of what is affordable".

The statement claimed the union was using scaremongering tactics over a "jobs meltdown".

Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of elite universities, said every effort was being made to retain staff of the highest calibre but that universities were subject to extremely difficult economic conditions. Income streams were under threat, costs were increasing and international competition was escalating, Piatt said.

"An 8% pay rise would undermine all our efforts to minimise job losses and severely hamper our chances of surviving this adverse economic climate," she added

Her views were echoed by Paul Marshall, Executive Director of the 1994 Group of newer universities: "In a difficult economic climate, the UCU's 8% pay claim is beyond what any responsible employer could be expected to deliver."