The idea that university lecturers should be paid to research in their areas of expertise and stay on top of their field, as well as teaching, is under serious assault. The Morrison government’s “Job Ready Graduates” legislation cut Commonwealth funding for universities down to what's needed for teaching purposes only, with no allocation for research. This gives a powerful incentive for university management to attack academics' research time in the enterprise bargaining round which is now getting underway in universities across the country.

That’s why it’s significant that academics in RMIT’s School of Health and Biomedical Sciences (SHBS) have won a union dispute centred on workloads. The seven-month dispute focussed largely on the allocation of time for research activities. 

The dispute affected around 100 teaching and research academics across ten disciplines, including nursing, psychology, osteopathy and laboratory medicine.

Academics are formally allocated a certain about of time for research activities. In the case of SHBS, many academics had their research time stripped from the previous norm of 20 per cent of working hours down to 5 or 10 per cent. Some were given no research time at all.

This harsh attack was carried out by the use of a rigid set of performance metrics. A senior lecturer was to publish nine journal articles, attract $90,000 in grants and have two PhD student completions over the preceding three years. If you didn’t meet the metrics, your research time was cut.

The attack limited the possibility of conducting any research, while forcing academics to increase their teaching load. But the academics are officially allowed only a fraction of the time that is really required to perform many teaching duties anyway, so workloads were already high. The effects of these new changes were catastrophic. Academics routinely work more than 60 hours per week during the peak of semester. These changes made that level of overwork continuous.

Before we’d even begun working under the new model, an SHBS NTEU members’ meeting voted to lodge a dispute with management. Our key demand was the removal of the rigid research performance metric system. We also wanted 30 percent to be the new baseline research allocation, which was consistent both with other schools in our college and with the university’s own promotion guidelines.

Our school didn’t have a very strong union presence, but in the first months of this year, we carried out detailed organising and mapping of all academics, organised a number of local and school-level organising meetings and made many phone calls and teams calls. (Much of this transpired in lockdown, so we couldn’t do much face-to-face organising.) We created a wide understanding of the key arguments of the dispute. We launched an open letter addressed to the school’s dean; that became an important organising tool, a way to talk with union and non-union members alike.

We built good momentum, but the dispute dragged on. Management would occasionally concede on minor points, but never budge on the substantive issues. Meanwhile, academics were stuck with zero research time and spending as much as 90 percent of their time teaching.

By chance, a new dean was appointed to the school. She was welcomed with the open letter, which by now had attracted signatures from over half of teaching and research academics. Shortly afterwards, we managed the most significant concessions on the terms of our dispute to date—but no change to the rigid all-or-nothing application of the metrics. 

By this stage, the harsh reality of working under the new workload regime was taking its toll on academics and the campaign. More than a few academics resigned. Many took sick leave, some for extended periods. The regular members’ meetings to discuss the dispute had continued, and now voted to bring the dispute to Fair Work. At this point, the deputy vice-chancellor of our college, with whom we had already tried unsuccessfully to escalate negotiations, suddenly appeared with an offer that represented significant progress.

In the final stages of the dispute, a members’ meeting put a final set of demands to management. After some last-minute wrangling with management, we finally won back the notion that all academics get 20 percent research time for the rest of the year, while those with no research outputs can access a mentor scheme and still get 15 percent research time. We didn’t win the full 30 percent we aspired to, though the increase in time for research won across the school will significantly reduce teaching workloads in semester two. It will also require a substantial increase in the casual budget provided by management.

This dispute exposed an important limitation in our enterprise agreement relating to workloads. A clause referring to what an academic would “normally” expect in terms of non-teaching workload proved to be a management loophole. It also proved to many academics that our upcoming enterprise bargaining will be crucial in order to fight for stronger protection against future attacks.

But if also proved that workers can have victories. Officially, this came from utilising our EA dispute clause and holding negotiations. But this was backed up by the open letter of protest, by active union meetings, by conversations about work stress, and by the gradual building of a more active rank and file. We showed that collective organising works, and that we can fight and win over workloads. More fights on this front can be expected in 2022.