As a State election saturated with education issues wraps up, tertiary educators at UTS are receiving a change in working conditions not yet granted to their primary and high school-based counterparts. Secured on the 16th of March, the new Enterprise Agreement is a result of tireless bargaining from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).
The union first took action in September of 2022, demanding greater job security, commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment targets, more supportive working conditions and 30 days of gender affirmation leave.
UTS Branch Director Dr. Sarah Attfield was particularly focused on seeking a reduction in casualisation and a pay rise in accordance with the cost of living as well as restrictions on the use of fixed-term contracts and a change to the definition of ‘redundancy’.
The union’s pay-related demands follow the March 7th cash rate hike to 3.6%, which the RBA has flagged may increase over the coming months.
Attfield says that many, but not all, of these pay-based changes have been fulfilled.
One of the most notable changes to staff working conditions is the introduction of conversion clauses, bettering job security for academics. Under this system, those on fixed-term contracts can be converted to permanent contracts if they have worked for a minimum of two years at a satisfactory level.
Complimenting this is the creation of 110 new jobs for current casual academics. Attfield says, “Obviously we would have liked more, but 110 is at least a good start.”
Additional job security comes from better processes for dealing with management changes, making it more difficult to declare a staff member redundant. Sarah adds that if someone is made redundant, a stronger review system has been implemented to challenge this.
On the matter of pay, the agreement now institutes a 14.75% increase over the life of the agreement, coming in at 3-4% increases per year.
“It's not where we wanted it,” Attfield says, with the figure sitting 0.25 lower than wanted. But she notes that the union decided to accept the figure because of other victories.
One of these was gender affirmation leave. Throughout the bargaining period, the NTEU pushed for 30 days of gender affirmation leave per annum – 30 days more than what was previously available.
Though initial discussions placed the new leave at 20 days for the life of the agreement, which lasts several years, the NTEU pushed this to 20 days per annum, bringing the university in line with other universities.
For Attfield, this is one of the shining parts of the new agreement.
“It sends a really important message to people that UTS is a safe place for trans people to work.” she says. “It’s a game changer, I think.”
Attfield also felt strongly about formalising the university’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment target.
UTS leadership initially followed the 2019-2023 Wingira Indigenous Employment Strategy, which encouraged, but did not require, a 3% Indigenous employment rate across the university. This target has now become enforceable. It will be overseen by the Wingira Committee, who will work out strategies to attract more Indigenous staff to the university.
One likely change resulting from the agreement will be a shifting attitude from students. New workload protections for staff will require guideline committees to be set up for each faculty, determining how many hours are required for each piece of work. Attfield says this means, “workloads will actually be manageable and reasonable and actually able to be carried out.”
Talking to Vertigo last year, the 2022 UTS Students Association (UTSSA) General Secretary Sabrine Yassine noted a culture of subtle disrespect amongst students when it came to tutor performance - a critique that neglected the working conditions they were operating under.
Attfield says she can understand.
“Students get frustrated when they don’t get enough feedback on their assignments, or the feedback doesn’t come back when they need it.”
She thinks the guidelines will see a shift in these attitudes, and envisions them “having a big flow-on effect for students.”
Despite this, Attfield says students played an instrumental role in the creation of this new agreement, and believes they’ll be imperative for future change.
Moving forward, the new agreement is waiting for approval from the Fair Work Commission. From there, the union will monitor the university's functioning under these new terms, looking for accountability and areas for change.