All universities face threat of coordinated staff strikes

All eight of New Zealand’s universities are facing the prospect of coordinated strikes following a breakdown in pay talks. The Tertiary Education Union says its members will vote on strike action next week.

The union has separate collective agreements at each of the universities, but they have expired at about the same time. That has allowed the union to take a common approach, demanding an 8% pay rise at each institution.

All eight universities reported financial surpluses in 2021. However, they cautioned that 2022 would be the most difficult since the pandemic began because foreign student enrolments, an important source of their income, would reach a low point and a spike in domestic enrolments has dropped away.

Irena Brörens, the National Industrial Officer at the Tertiary Education Union in Auckland, said union members wanted a real pay rise that met inflation and reflected the work they did.

She said it would also begin to address the reprioritisation of university spending away from people and into buildings.

The union’s branch president at Victoria University of Wellington Dougal McNeill said staff worked incredibly hard during the pandemic to keep tertiary education going through a national crisis.

“Over the past two years we have had to deliver classes both online and in person, which effectively doubled what for many were already unmanageable workloads caused by persistent cost-cutting and underinvestment in staff. We are in no mood to take an effective pay cut on the back of that,” he said.

Universities negotiating ‘in good faith’

Universities New Zealand, the umbrella body for the eight universities, said its members had been negotiating constructively and in good faith with union representatives and it hoped strike action could be avoided.

“Universities value their staff highly and greatly appreciate all they do, not least during the past two-and-a-half years of pandemic. They understand the pressures staff face because of the current high cost of living,” the organisation’s chief executive Chris Whelan said.

“However, each university is negotiating according to its own individual circumstances and needs to balance pay increases with other rising costs. Surpluses last year were generally a result of universities’ one-off cost-cutting measures in the first year of the pandemic followed by better-than-expected domestic and international student numbers in 2021.”

Whelan said 2022’s financial figures were not likely to be so strong.

He said universities had little room for manoeuvre as they juggle competing demands on their finances, including building and maintenance programmes.