Present tense

Vaccine chaos

Australia’s international student sector is on life support and is waiting desperately for a sign that Australia’s international borders will re-open to overseas students soon. A key element of the borders opening is the COVID pandemic getting under some semblance of control, and the most vital element of this is widespread vaccination.

All of which makes Australia’s increasingly botched vaccine roll out all the more problematic for the post-secondary education sector. As of mid-April, there had been around 1.2 million vaccine doses administered, well short of the promised 4 million by the end of the March, and it is now almost certain the planned population-wide vaccination target of October will not be met, and that many Australians will remain unvaccinated well into 2022.

This is in stark contrast to some of Australia’s competitor countries in the international education field, such as the US and the UK, both of whom have vaccinated numbers greater than Australia’s entire population in the opening months of 2021 (admittedly both those counties had disastrous COVID outcomes through 2020 and still have far higher case numbers than Australia).

As long as Australia’s own vaccination roll out remains in the slow lane, it will be difficult to begin to re-open our borders to the world, trapping residents at home, overseas-based citizens abroad, and cutting off any opportunity for the international student sector to recover.

The mooted mass vaccination centres are a good start, but Australia really needs to get a move on if we don’t want the world to pass us by – our post-secondary education sector is relying on it.

Legislative changes

In late March, the Federal Parliament passed amendments to the Fair Work Act, and while some of the more draconian changes didn’t get through the Senate, there were a few things that did, some of which will have a big effect on workers in the post-secondary education sector.

The most important changes relate to casual employment. The amendments to the Act tighten up the definitions around casual work, undermining the principles laid out in the court decisions of Rossato v Workpac Ltd and Skene v Workpac Ltd. These cases established that long-term and regular casual employees could claim that they were not in fact ‘casuals’, as defined by the Act, and are thus entitled to some of the benefits of ongoing employment, such as paid leave.

The changes to the Act now allow for any casual loading paid to such casuals to be off-set against any backpay claim for annual leave, and the likelihood is that this would largely soak up any underpayment that may otherwise be due. Furthermore, the amendments have tweaked redundancy provisions so that previous casual service for now permanent employees cannot be counted for the purposes of redundancy.

These changes are detrimental to workers in the post-secondary sector (an industry that relies heavily on widespread use of casual employment), and go to the heart of the attitudes of the Morrison Government towards workers in precarious employment.

Minimum wage decision

The Fair Work Commission will soon announce its decision in the annual National Wage decision, the increase to the national minimum wage, and as a flow-on, the rates in all awards. As the vast majority of employees in the post-secondary education sector are reliant on award conditions, the minimum wage increase is a crucial moment, as it informs the award increase that will apply across the sector.

In 2020, the increase was comparatively low (due to the pandemic), at 1.7%, but in the years prior to this, increases have been greater than 3%, and generally higher than the Wages Price Index, the standard measure for pay increases across the whole economy.

The ACTU is pushing for a 3.5% increase in 2021, while the government and business interests are lobbying for a sub-inflation increase, or no increase at all. The end decision will almost certainly land in the middle of that range.

The decision will be announced in late May, and it will take effect from 1 July.

Kendall Warren