The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has hit out at the federal government and demanded greater commitment from universities to protect the jobs of more than 20,000 university staff as COVID-19 strips billions of dollars off university revenue streams.
With Australian universities face crippling financial losses, plans to lay off university staff and push for changed working conditions are a major concern for the NTEU.
The union believes both the federal government and universities have to act in good faith to save university jobs.
NTEU president Alison Barnes said the the scale and rapid escalation of the crisis meant there was a need to negotiate at a national, sector-wide level to protect jobs.
"We are very disappointed with the federal government's position on this," Ms Barnes said.
"It is completely unacceptable and damaging."
"The government appears to have gone out of its way to ensure that universities are unable to access the JobKeeper subsidy, to the point of changing the regulations several times to achieve that outcome."
"Universities are clearly going to struggle without access to it."
Late adjustments to the rules of the JobKeeper program, released last week, mean universities must count six months of revenue when calculating their projected downturn.
This change basically means that universities will not be able to access the $1500 fortnightly relief payments.
Ms Barnes said the union was working to negotiate a National Jobs Protection Framework with university employers.
The government appears to have gone out of its way to ensure that universities are unable to access the JobKeeper subsidy, to the point of changing the regulations several times to achieve that outcomeAlison Barnes
"Ideally, this would secure protections for staff that are not currently available under our enterprise agreements or the Fair Work Act," she said.
The NTEU also believes that universities have to make a stronger commitment to supporting their staff.
While some universities have announced voluntary pay cuts for executive staff, the union wants universities to lock-in pay cuts for vice-chancellors and executive staff before any cost-saving measures affecting staff are implemented.
"The NTEU entered discussions to consider possible variations to enterprise agreements after a number of universities around the country indicated they were exposed to significant financial risk," Ms Barnes said.
"Due to crashing international student revenue, universities were considering unprecedented measures such as mass stand downs or mass redundancies.
"The NTEU is seeking a negotiated framework to avoid workers facing the worst options available to employers under industrial law.
"We want to ensure independent oversight of the financial basis for variations, and keep as many people as possible employed for as long as possible while we are in the pandemic."
The union is hoping a National Jobs Protection Framework would limit the capacity of employers to take actions such as generalised redundancies and stand-downs without pay that would result in wide-spread harm.
"Our aim is to minimise harm to employees (both short and long term) by contributing to the short-term viability of the institutions," Ms Barnes said.
Universities Australia conservatively estimates a revenue downturn across the sector of $3-$4.6 billion for 2020 and other sector commentators have projected at least $13-15 billion in accumulated shortfalls by 2024.
They have stated that the federal government guarantee of existing funding levels won't be enough to prevent more than 20,000 job cuts in the next six months. This estimate is on a full-time equivalent basis and the actual number of people affected if it were accurate would be more likely around 30,000 actual jobs.