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Dr Nelson's reforms turn negotiators from Frog Princes into lillypads

By Gavin Brown - posted Friday, 10 October 2003

Last month was a bad one for timing. After the final bell, Randwick got up to eliminate University from the rugby semi-final and after eight months of hard but constructive enterprise bargaining we found that our agreement with the Unions violates many clauses suddenly imposed by the government one day before its signing.

Dr Nelson, once the recipient of a standing ovation from the vice-chancellors, has contrived the magical transformation from prince to frog and thrown us into industrial chaos. It was always known that AWAs sat in the background but we were repeatedly assured that a simple form of compliance on that score would allow us to qualify for the much-needed increases to direct government funding. Both parties to the negotiations were aware of this background.

Instead, just before our bargain was due to be sealed, we were issued with a long list of prescriptive requirements, none of which we sought and any one of which can cost $24m over three years. Our agreement is historic in formally taking many staff completely outside the enterprise bargaining process. In fact anyone on the general staff earning $120K, anyone on the academic staff earning one and a half times a professorial salary and any dean earning one and a third times a professorial salary is totally excluded.


This goes much further than the government has ever asked but, in return, we gave generous maternity leave provision and an undertaking not to increase casual staff. Out of a blue sky, the new rules prohibit these explicitly. In the first case, through a provision that states that no concession shall exceed "community norms" and, in the second case, by a special injunction that no limit be negotiated on the proportion of casuals. At no stage over the past months did discussions with the Minister suggest that such matters were even on the radar screen. We have wasted hundreds of thousands of precious dollars in comprehensive negotiations while we kept asking for the ground rules and kept receiving reassurances which no longer apply.

There are many other protocols that must be satisfied before we qualify for the additional funding, which the Minister has frankly stated is necessary for higher education. It is my opinion that we have been offered a Faustian bargain and that it would be better for the sector to face lower quality arising from an inadequate resource base than to place ourselves in a state of total impotence.

I will lobby for the federal Senate to reject this part of the package, hope that my fellow vice-chancellors will do likewise and ask the Unions to show temperance and statesmanship while that process is played out.

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This article was first published in the University of Sydney's newspaper.

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About the Author

Professor Gavin Brown, a mathematician, is Vice- Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney.

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