A framework developed by a higher education union that aims to prevent university job losses by allowing wage cuts has sparked opposition from some institutions and union members.
National Tertiary Education Union members will vote on the National Jobs Protection Framework this week.
The framework would see universities in severe financial need during COVID-19 able to temporarily cut wages up to 15 per cent.
The proposal, negotiated last week by the National Tertiary Education Union, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, Universities Australia and some vice-chancellors, has been rejected by some universities.
Australian Catholic University vice-chancellor and president Professor Greg Craven said the framework would mean "surrendering control" to the national panel and the framework would lead to "reductions in conditions for staff".
An ANU spokesperson said the university was "looking at the detail" of the proposal, and any agreement proposed would be made in consultation with staff.
The National Higher Education Casuals Network, a group within the NTEU, has been a vocal campaigner against the framework.
In a statement, the NHECN said the framework would endanger casual jobs by allowing work to be redirected to permanent staff.
"When permanent jobs and casual jobs come into conflict permanent staff are put first," the statement said.
Lina Koleilat, a casual academic at ANU and a member of the ANU union branch committee and the Casual Committee, said she and other union members learned about the negotiations between NTEU executives and vice-chancellors after they started taking place.
She is sceptical about the framework's ability to save jobs.
"The union is saying that we will be losing 30,000 jobs and this framework will attempt to save up to 12,000 jobs, so already we are losing 18,000 jobs," she said.
Ms Koleilat said some members of NTEU believed the union should be fighting for government support rather than endorsing this framework.
"Universities give immensely to society. This is the time where the government is standing with the private sector ... why not put money in education?" she said.
University of Canberra lecturer and NTEU UC branch president Craig Applegate said without the framework there would be "significant" casual job losses at UC.
He said UC had announced a staged plan to cut costs that began with staff taking leave voluntarily and "dramatically reducing" the number of casual workers next semester.
"The casuals who currently have jobs teaching in semester one ... when that's all done they won't have work any more," he said.
A UC spokesperson said the university expected to lose about $33 million this year, and more than that in the next two years.
The spokesperson said the university was "working through the details" of the framework and said its staged cost-cutting measures aimed to avoid redundancies.
"This phased approach involves freezing recruitment, encouraging and - only if necessary - directing staff to take leave," they said.
Dr Applegate said the framework would "share the burden" and enforce measures not in current enterprise agreements, such as wage cuts for executive staff.
"Instead of a few people taking all the sacrifice in a permanent way, a greater number of people will be taking a smaller sacrifice in a temporary way," he said.
While he acknowledged the impact cuts would have, he stressed the maximum cut of 15 per cent was a last resort for a university going under, and an institution would first impose other measures such as deferral of pay increases.
"This is the most divisive issue that I have ever seen the union deal with," Deborah Veness said.
Ms Veness has worked at the Australian National University and been a union member for more than a decade. She said accepting the framework would be accepting staff deserve lower pay.
"What the union should have done from day one is mobilise the rank and file in a campaign to put pressure on the government," she said.
"The whole sector has been left to manage what is a quite dreadful situation."
Government support to stop job losses due to COVID-19 was "unrealistic", NTEU ACT branch secretary Cathy Day said. She said the union has lobbied, with no success.
Universities are ineligible for JobKeeper payments, and institutions say a federal government relief package guaranteed funding for domestic students won't fill the gap of international student fees.
That loss could be at least $250 million across the ACT sector in the next three years, a report from Victoria University found.
Dr Day said the framework would protect casual workers and had tighter safeguards around redundancy.
"If the work is there to be done [universities] can't just make people redundant," Dr Day said.
Under the Fair Work Act, restructuring is grounds for redundancy, but she said the framework ensured institutions couldn't alter a course to require less staff if the same fundamental work remained.
"They can be made redundant without pay but under the framework they will have some protections and some salaries. It won't be brilliant, no one is saying they're going to be rich, but it won't be a matter of having absolutely no money at all," she said.
The framework would group institutions into two categories according to a "national expert panel". Group A would be those under high financial strain, and group B would be those under severe financial strain.
"You're basically staring insolvency in the face," said Dr Day, who expected 25 per cent of Australian universities to be in category B.