Staff at the University of Canberra have voted to strike for the first time in more than a decade, drawing "a line in the sand" as tensions mount over pay and claims early career academics are being exploited to increase research rankings.
Just after midday on October 17, academic and professional staff will walk off the job, after talks broke down between the union and the university last month.
If the university does not "take staff concerns seriously" when negotiations resume on the 18th, staff have also approved a second full-day strike within 10 days.
Rachel Bahl, ACT division secretary for the National Tertiary Education Union, said staff morale was as low as it had been in some time.
“What began as a sense of disquiet is now a firm resolve to take action," she said.
“We walked in with a recommendation for a half-day strike, and walked out with a decision for a day-and-a-half of strikes."
Craig Applegate, UC branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said staff were "sick of being disrespected" by the chancellery.
At the centre of the dispute is a scheme introduced by the university to fast-track early career academics into senior professor roles, shaving down the usual career path to just seven years.
While it is sold as a drawcard, the union says at least half of academics don't make it through what has become known around campus as the "burn and churn program" or the seven-year probation.
Assistant professors can be fired early if they are deemed unlikely to achieve the ranks of associate professor, meaning talented lecturers are often lost to their faculties.
Staff who spoke to The Canberra Times said they felt pressured to pump out research to survive, working long nights and weekends while balancing effectively full-time teacher commitments as workloads across the university continued to pile up.
This month, a letter from the university's professoriate called for the program to be axed, citing its debilitating toll on junior colleagues.
Vice-chancellor Deep Saini declined to comment on enterprise bargaining this week but has stood by the assistant professor scheme as "sector-leading".
While unique in Australia, he said it was similar to programs in the US and Canada, which typically had even shorter contracts
"It's been one of the most powerful drivers behind raising quality at the university, some of our top researchers and scholars have gone through it, some of our stars have emerged," Professor Saini said.
"For those who perform well, it has been a great system. All kinds of claims are made by various parties [around] enterprise bargaining."
While he said some people had raised concerns about the scheme with him personally, he stressed the university had already been improving it, particularly in the past two years, and the welfare of staff was paramount to any system running at the university.
"There is nothing wrong with the scheme itself, it's just that it is run by human beings and at times there's areas where it can be improved," Professor Saini said.
But a number of academics have painted a different picture of "crushing pressure" and "inhumane" treatment, particularly for those who had built lives in Canberra, only to be let go early. Others said they were offered little support or mentorship.
Psychology professor Ian Walker said the "all or nothing" program, which left people no option to stop at senior lecturer level, was causing exceptional stress.
While the university has pointed to its own rising research rankings as a reflection of the scheme's success, Mr Applegate said no temporary "sugar hit" in rankings was worth the human cost of the assistant professor scheme.
National assistant secretary at the union Matthew McGowan said there was "a lot of anger on campus" as pay continued to lag behind the rest of the sector and UC refused to move on issues around job security and leave.
Earlier this year, the university finished up a "voluntary separation program" in which it spent more than $7 million paying staff to resign in reaction to the federal government's funding freeze.
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