AUSTRALIA: Universities hit by widespread strikes

Australia's main higher education union called a 24-hour strike last Wednesday at 16 universities across the nation as part of a campaign to obtain improved conditions, including salary rises of up to 6%.

"National Tertiary Education Union members at universities in all six Australian states participated in stoppages in support of their collective bargaining claims for manageable workloads, increased job security, a fair wages deal and other improvements to conditions that are expected to deliver quality education outcomes," said the union's General Secretary, Grahame McCulloch.

Last week's 24-hour strike followed earlier industrial action at Victorian universities in May and recent stop-works at three other universities.

Union members at the University of Canberra, the University of Technology Sydney and the University of Newcastle are about to commence ballots for protected industrial action in early October.

The union says it has been negotiating a new collective agreement with the universities for months and the failure of managements to offer a reasonable deal, together with breakdowns in negotiations, resulted in industrial action being taken.

Several universities, including the University of Sydney, have signed agreements with the union that will run for the next three years. Sydney was one of the first to reach an agreement with the union, providing annual increases of more than 5% for its staff up to May 2012.

In Melbourne, Monash University agreed to a 4.2% annual increase last month but the other two big institutions, the University of Melbourne and RMIT University, have yet to reach agreement and were disrupted by strikes.

Staff at Melbourne stopped work and picketed entry gates on Wednesday over the university's plans to slash 220 positions, including 100 through voluntary redundancies. Faculties including land and environment, engineering and medicine, and the Victorian College of the Arts and Music, have indicated that jobs will have to be cut.

The NTEU believes that more jobs will be lost as a result of a new budget model that will force schools to cut costs. But the universities denied there were any plans for more cuts.

"It is time for management to invest in quality education outcomes by ensuring improved staff-student ratios, more resources, improved conditions and a reduction in the casualisation of the sector through improved conditions and more secure jobs for casual staff," McCulloch said.

At Melbourne, staff at the school of engineering were told that 32 jobs - 20 academic and 12 professional and technical - would have to go as a result of an AUD4.3 million (US$3.75 million) cut in the school's budget. The school of land and environment announced it required a 38% cut in academic staff and removal of undergraduate teaching from regional campuses.