The ANU Branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) is back at the bargaining table.

The ongoing bargaining process began in November 2022 following the expiry of the previous Enterprise Agreement (EA) in June 2021. After eight long rounds of bargaining by union members, most of whom are volunteers, the ANU and NTEU have yet to reach an agreement.

So, what exactly are the NTEU calling for? Woroni spoke to Assistant Division Secretary and Bargaining Team member, Lina Koleilat, to find out more.

Fair Salaries

The NTEU is calling for a 15% pay rise or inflation +1.5% by December 2024. ANU staff voted to delay their last scheduled wage increase at the university’s request during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ANU said, COVID is hitting us hard. Staff, help us so we don’t have to fire you. Help us, freeze your pay rises,” recalls Koleilat, who has worked at the ANU in various casual roles over the past decade.

Because pay raises are designed to keep in line with inflation, a pay freeze results in a real decrease in pay, but Koleilat says, “People who work here love their students. They love this campus. They want public education. That’s why we are working here. So we all said yes, [the vote] passed.”

Despite claims that this pay freeze would prevent job losses, the ANU went on to cut almost 500 jobs by voluntary redundancy.

When the University later revealed that it made a $232.4m surplus in 2021, many staff wondered what their sacrifices had been for.

“Now the financial report of the university is out. And now we find out that they’ve made billions of dollars… why did we get a pay cut? Why did you do voluntary redundancies? Why are you making so much money while staff went through what staff went through?” questions Koleilat.

Though the University has now made the deferred 2% raise, this delay combined with the fact that the last EA lapsed almost two years ago, means that staff pay is not keeping up with inflation. The NTEU requested an interim pay raise of 5% but only received 3.5% from the university.

An ANU spokesperson acknowledged that “the past few years have been difficult for many staff members. That is why the Vice-Chancellor signed off on a pay increase of 3.5 per cent from February this year.”

Job Security

One of the greatest challenges for staff is the lack of job security. A large number of those educating students are working on a casual basis. Though the ANU has not released internal data on this topic, in its 2021 Annual Information Statement to the ACNC, the university reported that 2 in 5 of all workers are employed on a casual basis. The ANU’s 2021 Financial Report shows that 3 in 10 full-time and part-time employees are also on non-ongoing contracts. These figures include all staff at the ANU, but Koleilat expects that teaching staff are more likely to be in insecure work.

Koleilat paints a grim picture of life for casual educators at the ANU.

“It’s very cheap for the University to hire people like us. It usually happens last-minute before the semester starts. We start working most of the time and we don’t get paid for a few weeks because [of] the contracts. HR is very slow. This is one of our biggest problems because you know you don’t get paid for week one, two, three, four… you haven’t paid the rent. And then you get paid for the full weeks in a lump sum. You get taxed a lot because [the government] thinks that’s your income. And you have to wait a year to get that back.”

Beyond this, concerns have been raised about the lack of adequate compensation for marking, answering student queries, holding office hours, attending lectures, and the general job insecurity that comes with working on short-term or zero-hour contracts.

Healthy Workloads

The NTEU is seeking better class sizes, better leave provisions, including gender affirmation leave, protections from unhealthy workloads, more support for quality research and teaching, and an end to unpaid work and wage theft.

Wage theft is endemic in the university sector. A 2023 report tracing 34 instances of wage underpayment across 22 Australian institutions revealed that conservatively, employers owed $83.4 million to staff across the higher education sector.

So, can the ANU afford to pay staff fairly? This was the topic of a talk by Emeritus Professor James Guthrie from Macquarie University on Thursday 30 March.

The answer: “The Australian National University can afford to pay as they have plenty of money.”

Delving into the Australian Government Department of Education’s Finance 2021 report, Guthrie notes that “ANU equity is about $3 billion and cash and cash equivalents about $1.9 billion and borrowings $0.5 billion. This indicates a healthy financial situation for ANU.”

The Professor described negative financial forecasting across the sector as, “nothing more than a smokescreen to drive down the terms and conditions of university employees and, more importantly, to make redundant over 50,000 staff.”

Guthrie pointed to the university’s ever-increasing real-estate investments as a “substantial financial liability.” This includes the controversial decision to buy a disused bus stop for $17 million.

“The numbers ultimately point to one overarching issue. The University, over decades, has shifted its focus from its core teaching and research activities to position itself as an investment and property operation… Over the past ten years, this commercial property development activity has relied on debt to fund these capital projects rather than government grants.”

Though staff bear the brunt, students have already felt the cost of these measures on their education. As Koleilat says, “staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”

Recently, at a college-wide staff meeting, staff questioned Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt about the state of the bargaining process.

“My goal is not to lowball. It’s to get the right value for the salary that’s appropriate for how much money we have,” explained Schmidt, before giving an ominous warning.

“It is a little bit affected by the external environment… I don’t think we want to end up in the place the University of Sydney is in right now.” University of Sydney staff recently held their ninth strike day, while the university undergoes the longest ever enterprise bargaining in the tertiary sector’s history.

Schmidt also hinted at addressing the issue of casualisation.

“I’m hoping we’ll be able to get something on casualisation of the workforce that is sector-leading. That would be vital.”

He goes on, “we need to really think about how and when we use casualised labour in the university because it has some serious issues compared to our mission.”

But does Schmidt’s comment represent the views of the ANU bargaining team? Whether the University will take action to address the issues raised by the NTEU is still unknown.

“Key matters that have been discussed so far this year include gender affirmation leave, flexible work, hours of work, overtime and shift work, higher duties allowance, personal leave, parental leave, academic freedom and superannuation. These discussions are ongoing,” says an ANU spokesperson.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.