STRIKING National Tertiary Education Union members have rallied outside the University of Newcastle for improved working conditions, job security and better pay, saying staff were at risk of burning out and leaving, which will impact student learning.
NTEU Newcastle branch vice-president (academic) Associate Professor Terry Summers said the union and UON management had been in enterprise bargaining negotiations for more than a year and wanted improvements in areas including workload management, change management processes, ensuring casual staff get paid for all hours worked, an improved right to conversion for staff in insecure work and linking activities to hours for academics to create an enforceable limit.
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"The new workload model doesn't allocate hours to activities so what that means is management can arbitrarily say 'We need you to teach four courses or five courses or 10 courses and that's a full workload, arbitrarily," Dr Summers said.
"[It's like] If I'm picking apples and a full workload is 100 crates a week but then the apple farmer decides he's not making enough money and he says 'Well now a full workload is 150 crates a week'... or he changes the sizes of the crates."
He said the student to staff ratio was about 25.
"By my calculations it will be 40 under this, they will nearly be doubling our workload... they'll sack half our staff, that's where we're going. When we're talking about safe workloads, they're going to work us to death. People will leave... that means the university collapses."
School of Environmental and Life Sciences Professor Erica Wanless said she would see her teaching load double under the model.
"[This is] an impossible task on the 60 hour week I worked last week and yes, we have been able to provide feedback on the proposal, but no, there hasn't been any announcement of any modifications to the proposal which is set for rollout next month," she said.
"Where is the transparency? If perhaps it's not to be modified it's only my research effort that can and will necessarily suffer.
"Do we still wish to be a university of research excellence? I feel I'm getting really mixed messages from the top."
Professor Wanless said she had put UON on the international stage in her field, graduated 26 PhD students and been the lead on six Discovery grants.
"Yet I have the really strong impression that I'm going to get turned into a teaching only academic if the workload project is not modified to include hourly provisions rather than the currently proposed puerile course-grained entire course model," she said.
"I'm an established academic, how on earth are my junior colleagues supposed to get their careers off the ground?"
Newcastle Business School Associate Professor Sara Motta said she honoured several groups, including "the memory of all our colleagues that have been lost to optimisation and restructuring", students who no longer had support services due to professional staff cutbacks, PHD students who no longer had specific dedicated staff to guide them, colleagues in casualised labour, her own burnout "of having to maintain excellence in teaching and research, even when it costs us our health" and the University of Newcastle Students Association.
PhD student in humanities and social sciences and casual academic Ivy Scurr said she'd been asked to work with inadequate notice, written content for lectures and courses and "never been asked back to teach that course again" and been paid the minimum rate of two hours preparation time and one hour delivery for a lecture she had written, which didn't accurately take into account the research and expertise she poured into it.
"We don't get paid for the hours and effort that we do... I don't think I've worked in any industry where I've had to do as many unpaid hours and been as insecure about whether I can even stay in housing semester to semester."
Casual academic Liz Adamczyk, who is married to a long-term casual staff member, said about 50 per cent of the staff were casual, based on headcount.
"The issues facing casual staff really are about dignity, so making sure they're paid for all of the hours that they work and also equity, so things like making sure they are entitled to leave when they need it and equal super," she said.
"There are genuine casual staff that might do activities you might be hired genuinely to perform as casual work, but then there are others that have been doing the exact same work for decades now, so it might be a course they've taught for every single semester every year for the last 20 years.
"That's just not casual work...it's a very difficult situation for people to be seeing themselves do the same job and seeing a colleague alongside of them who by whatever luck or privilege or just purely how it's happened - same qualifications, same experience - but they're on a different type of contract, which means they have different entitlements."
Dr Summers said the union was calling for a payrise of 15 per cent from the end of the last agreement in September 2021 to the end of the next agreement, which is expected to be December 2024.
He said this recognised the university's true financial position, productivity gains made in recent years and cost of living pressures.
UON Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Kent Anderson said only 10 per cent of scheduled classes were affected by the strike.
He said UON's offer included a new conversion process for academic casual staff to more secure employment.
"Our staff have asked us to deliver a new [workload allocation] model that delivers on the principles of equity, fairness, transparency and sustainability... we have been addressing this outside the bargaining cycle.
"We have received more than 250 pieces of feedback and held over 50 College and School forums, so we can get this right."
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