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The murky world of industrial relations in the higher ed sector

By Joanne Finkelstein - posted Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Industrial relations in the higher education sector is notoriously fraught; why wasn't it a major conversation at the national Universities Australia annual conference held in Canberra recently?

Why is it a topic that few will address?

Discussions at the conference were predictably on shared concerns such as recruitment of international students, fees and scholarships, widening participation, curriculum architecture, employability of graduates and the expansion of training programs and degrees. Missing from the conversations was the topic of quality in pedagogy and academic performance, and the capacity of institutions to address the issue.


University staff have enjoyed protection from detection for many years as the various unions have effectively ensured their privileges. In recent years, however, union membership has dwindled and academic staff, in particular, has been increasingly casualised. By the slow process of natural attrition the profile of teaching staff (less so for research staff) has been re-drawn as the baby-boomer cohort take retirement and open up the positions they have unchangingly held for twenty and thirty more years. In their place, short-term contracts are offered to post-graduate students.

The quality of universities' delivery to students is adversely influenced by the casual, less engaged and experienced academic. It is particularly evident in newer institutions which have been aggressive in developing new programs of study supposedly in response to market demands. Degrees in the expanding discipline of business, for example, such as project management, small business and event management, tourism and eco travel, beauty and spa management, are examples of new qualifications that are on offer. The question of who is delivering these programs is important as there is no established field of study or research that informs the integrity of these programs, hence, there are too few well qualified academics to join the legion of institutions offering these market sensitive programs.

Such changes to delivery are the background context for the larger and more vexed issue of industrial relations in the higher education sector. The recently retired and much respected CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), Kate Carnell, has stated in her various final speeches that Industrial Relations needs to be addressed even though there is a near universal nervousness about doing so. As she assumes her new position as Small Business Ombudsman she explains that the area has been seriously contaminated by the failed Work Choice policy of the John Howard Govt. which appeared to undermine the autonomy of employees with workplace agreements that could reduce entitlements (sick leave, parental leave, paid holidays etc) while protecting employers from claims of unfair dismissal.

The upshot is that a decade later, the matter of industrial relations remains an area that few will address. Yet, in the higher education sector, such a culture has ensured a declining quality in teaching especially in the newer and regional universities – those institutions designed specifically to widen participation and increase social equity.

The higher education sector has been commercially successful, significantly contributing to the national economy and this makes radical changes to its operations unappealing. Yet businesses that resist internal and critical review that produce continuous improvement are destined to decline. While there are high level review processes (e.g. TEQSA, QAA), these rarely delve into the bowels of the organization where the question remains - who is looking at academic performance? How is curriculum reviewed? Academic autonomy, one of the privileges of the job, allows lazy academics to leave their materials relatively untouched for years and years. Who ensures fair assessment of student work? Who is there to check whether adequate feedback is given to students?

To further illustrate the lack of rigour at middle management, the application of staff workloads, the failure to resolve corridor tensions, the dissipation of student complaints through complex levels of review and the common failure to act in a timely way to whistleblowers and those bringing grievances is evidence of failure in matters of internal management.


Are these complaints – such as student dissatisfaction and corridor skirmishes between academics - important? The internal climate surveys that many universities undertake every two or three years often reveal comprehensive disengagement with staff and widespread passivity. The response of senior management to such reports is often inadequate –reports delivered to the overarching Council of the institution are often glossed; the Federal Govt policy delivering diminished financial resources to the sector is the common excuse for internal tensions and dissatisfaction. However, for the academic on the shop floor (as it were), the failure of the administrative agencies within the institution to address the poverty of management readily become the grounds for their own declining engagement. For such individuals, there is little point of continuous improvement in a culture that accepts entropy. That is why industrial relations should be very high on the agenda for the higher education sector. If the sector is to be innovative and agile, in accord with the Federal Government's ambitions, changing the culture must come from the bottom as well as the top. The current workforce is not producing a sustainable future.

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About the Author

Joanne Finkelstein is a Professor of Sociology and previously Head of School, Management & Enterprise, USQ, QLD.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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