Strike threat over limits on research

Melbourne University academics are preparing for industrial action over concerns that their academic freedom could be limited under a new agreement.
Nanjing Night Net

Academics fear the university is seeking the power to make them redundant if their research fails to match their department’s ”research direction”. The university has rejected the criticism, but the academics said the demand from the university, raised in negotiations over the new agreement, could restrict their ability to pursue innovative research.

Melbourne University law Associate Professor Beth Gaze said she was stunned when she saw the clause in negotiation items.

She said the university had a strong reputation for research, which should not be undermined.

”I just cannot imagine why we would change the research culture in this sort of way,” she said. ”If you want to have innovation and new discoveries you have to let the people who are expert in those areas follow the research where they want to go.”

Melbourne University Provost Margaret Sheil said the clause was a ”suggestion” made in discussions with the National Tertiary Education Union. It was designed for extreme situations such as the unlikely closure of academic departments. ”We’re a long way from even implementing this clause if it were to proceed,” she said.

Professor Sheil condemned the union for dragging out negotiations. She said the university had been ready since last March but it had taken the union until October to join ”serious” discussions.

She said the availability of government funding was the greatest influence on which research projects could proceed. ”That drives research, not what management says.”

Melbourne University is Australia’s top-ranked university and the country’s only institute inside the top 30 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

The union’s Victorian secretary, Colin Long, said Fair Work Australia had issued a ballot order for industrial action. Staff would vote on whether to take action in coming weeks, which could range from strikes to withholding results and administrative bans.

”We just object to the university deciding what is appropriate research,” Dr Long said. ”Universities are becoming much more corporate and commercial. We’re worried universities will have a very narrow focus on research.”

He said the union would not accept restrictions on academic freedom.

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