Students caught in middle as Swinburne staff locked out in pay fight

Students caught in middle as Swinburne staff locked out in pay fight

August 19, 2022

Key points

  • Dozens of Swinburne University teachers have had their pay docked and been barred from working amid a toxic industrial dispute over pay and conditions.
  • The industrial dispute will also impact hundreds of students as a result of cancelled or disrupted classes.
  • Partial work bans by vocational education staff at three Swinburne campuses have been in place for almost a year. 

Hundreds of students at Swinburne University face weeks of cancelled or disrupted classes and dozens of teachers have had their pay docked and been barred from working amid a toxic industrial dispute over pay and conditions.

The university cracked down last week on a series of long-running partial work bans that vocational education staff at three Swinburne campuses have engaged in for almost a year, as part of long-running negotiations for a new workplace agreement.

Swinburne University’s Hawthorn campus

Staff have been told that, even though the bans are lawful, Swinburne will not pay them nor allow them to work unless they return to full duties. Staff, supported by two unions, were refusing to back down on Friday and the stalemate is due to run into its second week.

Students in a range of vocational subjects including plumbing, horticulture, electrical and migrant English have been affected. Many are apprentices who have been directed back to work sites and told classes will be rescheduled at an unknown future date.

The 23 work bans include not recording student engagement and attendance, not recording results, not attending meetings and not responding to email, telephone or in-person inquiries.

The bans, particularly on recording student attendance and results, can affect how much government funding Swinburne receives.

The university said it was deducting pay from some staff because the ongoing disruption to students’ learning experience was unsustainable.

“Swinburne is exercising its right to deduct the pay from those union members who choose to engage in protected industrial action,” a spokesman said.

“It is precisely to prevent disruption of our students’ studies that we have decided to utilise the options legally available to us.

“We disagree with and very much regret the use of students’ results, part of their future careers, as a tactic by NTEU [National Tertiary Education Union] and we seek a fair and reasonable outcome for this process.”

Two unions, the NTEU and the Australian Education Union, are involved in negotiations.

Elaine Gillespie, vice-president of the TAFE division of the AEU, rejected the assertion that students had been affected by the partial work bans, which began in September last year.

Exceptions to the bans on recording attendance and results apply to students who are within six months of completing their course or for any unit that is a prerequisite for progression.

“As a teacher, your students are your priority,” Gillespie said.

NTEU Swinburne branch president Julie Kimber said that students “weren’t even aware that teachers had partial bans on” until the university hardened its stance last Friday.

The university on Thursday offered vocational staff an annual pay rise of either 3.25 per cent with 15 per cent superannuation, or 3.5 per cent with 12 per cent super.

But in return, it proposed “the removal of annual leave loading” and limitations on conversion to fixed-term or ongoing employment linked with the financial viability of courses and where future course funding is not guaranteed”.

Jonathan Lane has taught as part of Swinburne’s adult migrant English program for more than 10 years, but has never been made permanent.

Currently blocked from working, he is making do from the unions’ strike fund and said he could hold out for a few more weeks if he had to.

“My situation is not desperate, but I need to work,” he said.

Lane works three shifts a week at Swinburne’s Wantirna campus, teaching English to new migrants and refugees as part of a federally funded employment program.

“I enjoy it, I’ve taught people from everywhere and that’s interesting,” he said.

But Lane, 56, said he would like the security of permanent employment after several years of being on temporary contracts.

“I’ve been on contract 6½ years, I’ve asked on several occasions can I be made permanent,” he said.

Staff protested at the Hawthorn campus on Thursday. One teacher, who requested anonymity in case speaking out affected their employment, said staff engaged in partial work bans had never stopped teaching until this week, when management blocked them from doing so.

“We have never stopped teaching, we have put our students first and foremost, battled hard to get through COVID, doing extensive hours to get students through.”

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