The federal government appears to be putting pressure on universities to only hire staff on the controversial Australian Workplace Agreements — despite claiming that all employees must be offered “genuine choice” between collective agreements and AWAs.

Under the Higher Education Workplace Relations Requirements Act, universities are liable to lose federal funding if they do not comply with the provisions of the act.

The act already requires universities to submit details to the federal Department of Education each August detailing their workplace employment arrangements. The Department has begun circulating memos to the universities setting out what it says is preliminary advice on workplace policies and practices.

And in what seems to be a contradictory note to the University of New England, the Department says that the act requires that the university must provide employees with genuine choice and flexibility by offering Australian Workplace Agreements when hiring permanent or casual academics and general staff.

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That is, the university is supposed to offer AWAs only to any job-seeker. The memo does state at the beginning that the comments “are designed to help you understand the [act] and comply with them”. It also says they are “merely suggestions, with which you are not obliged to comply” although the act makes it clear what the consequences would be – loss of funding. And it points out that the comments do not necessarily indicate what decision Education Minister Julie Bishop might make “concerning your institution’s compliance with the [act]”.

The National Tertiary Education Union claims that $400 million worth of federal funding to the university sector is at stake. The Union’s acting general secretary, Ken McAlpine, says the department’s memo is the first to come to light showing the government “is determined to go further in forcing universities to push AWAs on to staff” — although the Union believed this would only happen after the election if the Coalition won.

“At first the government threatened funding if universities didn’t offer AWAs but this is taking it a step further and saying to the sector – if you don’t include AWA-only employment in your policies your funding is threatened,” McAlpine says. “The government obviously does not respect the choice that the majority of employees in our sector have made – out of the about 150,000 AWAs offered, only some 2,000 staff have left the security of collective agreements to go onto individual contracts.”

He contrasts Prime Minister Howard’s public claim that all employees must be offered “genuine choice” with the education bureaucrats’ attempt to “enforce his real agenda: to remove choice and force staff onto AWAs.”

“This government is now saying “genuine choice” means the choice between an AWA and unemployment.”

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