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Why Brendan Nelson should have stuck to his IR reform agenda

By Graeme Haycroft - posted Tuesday, 16 December 2003


I’m not sure whether Federal Education Minister Nelson is spineless or just off with the pixies but his backdown on academic industrial relations reform is regrettable. Poor presentation of the benefits to the taxpayers of his proposed changes to introduce concepts of choice, by way of Australian Workplace Agreements, has meant that a priceless opportunity for beneficial change has been squandered.

Minister Nelson has told us ad nauseum that he wanted their (our) tertiary education tax dollar to go further and for that to happen things had to change. He had even correctly identified that one of the areas of unconscionable waste was a direct consequence of the prescriptive academic workplace agreements. It was certainly not the only problem area but apart from having to suffer the self-interested bleating of vested interests of the university Vice-Chancellors and the unions, it’s remarkably easily fixed.

Let me explain how. As much as they would refute the simplicity of this, academics like everyone else are just paid to perform a service. Furthermore, good academics provide the services better than the not-so-good academics. We the taxpayers get a bigger lecturing and research bang for our bucks from the good.

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So we need to attract and keep the better academics and let the poorer ones go elsewhere without incurring increased cost to the taxpayer. Unfortunately, the aforesaid vested interests have determined exactly in what form academic payments should be and under what conditions. These packages are called Certified Agreements. They are collective agreements in which employees have effectively no say. One size fits all and if it doesn’t suit, well stiff.

Now commonsense and experience tells us that the better performers in all fields generally put a lesser value on guarantees and contingencies. They know they are in demand, are never going to be made redundant, are unlikely to ever claim long-service leave, will never be moved into a less responsible area or ever need to be paid excessive sick leave for “wacko” things like “stress”. They are happy to swap this sort of, to them, useless entitlement for "filthy lucre".

Don’t believe me? Try putting a "12 week contingent entitlement to redundancy pay" as a down payment for your new car.

On the other side, the employers who have to fund these contingencies generally can’t wait to get the liabilities off their books by paying negotiated cash value for them.

But you can’t do any of this with a Certified Agreement unless everyone agrees. But you can with Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) because they are individual agreements and everybody is different.

For instance, an academic might want to trade a lower lecture stipend for preference on an increased research allocation. The cost to the taxpayer is the same but the overall result is better. This sort of incremental advantage on, say, the 50 per cent of academe really adds up to serious increased efficiency. Mega millions in value for no increase on the budget bottom line.

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The question at stake isn’t whether AWAs are better or worse than Certified Agreements. They are just different. But it is this difference that holds the key to sending our tertiary education tax dollars further.

All that is required to affect these sorts of changes is the simple addition of one line to the Union Certified Agreements, which allows those employees who want to, to have the option to negotiate AWAs. That’s all. Nothing more. If that clause isn’t included then nothing can happen.

That simple? You bet. Yet Minister Nelson has backed down on that simple point and instead of demanding that this option be included in the academic certified agreements has agreed that it can be optional to include that option. God save us! But the only parties to the new academic Certified Agreements now being negotiated are the Vice Chancellors, who are notionally the employers, and the unions. They have all made it clear that they oppose the option of an AWA-enabling provision. What on earth did the Minister think he was agreeing to and why is he still claiming that the AWA reform option still exists? It doesn’t. So in practice then for at least another three years, none of the best and brightest academics will have the option to opt out of the system. They will be stuck with the union certified 50 to 60-page tomes to industrial political correctness, unclaimable contingencies and useless guarantees whereas most of them would prefer to opt for AWAs of simple 4 or 5 page reflections on personal preference including more good old-fashioned money.

So much for sending our tertiary education dollars further.

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About the Author

Graeme Haycroft has been involved in workplace issues for over four decades. He is one of the founders of the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland.

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