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‘Diabolical’ and ‘systemic’: Australia’s top-ranked university caught up in wage scandal

Australia’s top-ranked university is repaying more than 1,500 academics in an underpayment scandal involving four faculties.

The National Tertiary Education Union’s national president Dr Alison Barnes called the revelations about the University of Melbourne “diabolical” and “systemic”, with other top-tier universities allegedly engaging in similar conduct.

“The University of Melbourne faces a series of backpay claims for unpaid wages of at least half a million, ranging well into the millions of dollars,” Barnes said.

The scandal, which was revealed by the ABC, found that casual academic staff at the university were being paid “piece rates" for marking student assessments rather than the full amount required under their enterprise agreement. They were also expected to mark student assessments in three minutes.

Some staff were also required to attend tutorials for which they were not properly remunerated. This happened due to the university reclassifying ‘tutorials’ to ‘practice classes’, despite the work being the same, and slashing wages by up to a third.

The wage theft at the University of Melbourne spanned four faculties (Arts, Fine Arts and Music, Science, and Engineering) and the university has admitted liability in each. It was also revealed by the ABC investigation that pay claims went back as far as six years.

“The key driver of wage theft is casual and insecure employment, which is absolutely rife at Australian universities," Barnes said.

“Approximately seven in 10 university workers are insecurely employed, creating a fertile environment for exploitation.

“Wage theft has terrible consequences. It deprives modestly paid casual workers of the income to pay bills, plan for their future or take a basic holiday. We know of cases where members have lost up to half the income they should be entitled to.”

Barnes also asserted that tougher penalties were needed to discourage those who exploit their employees, including criminal penalties.

“Unions need far better access to records including for former employees and non-members. And we need the right to inspect those records quickly, without having to wait 24 hours,” she said.

“Australian universities should also be compelled to report accurate figures on casual and limited contract employment. This would provide a much clearer picture of which university employees are likely to be exploited.

"What happened at Melbourne University is really just the tip of the iceberg.”

Although the university’s latest annual report lists $4.43 billion in reserves, a significant portion of its staff – 72.9 per cent – are experiencing insecure work.

Faculty of Arts staff owed millions

615 tutors from the university were sent letters by the university to lodge their claims by the end of the week. The first tranche of workers to receive communication were tutors still employed at the university, including history tutor Shan Windscript.

For two years Winsdcript coordinated a “grassroots fightback” to change the conditions for casual employees in the sector.

"We have to work multiple jobs just to survive. Meanwhile, we have our vice-chancellor getting paid twice as much as the Prime Minister," she told the ABC.

"A lot of our casuals are single-parent carers, migrant workers in vulnerable positions."

Under the “piece rate” wage, Windscript alleges she was underpaid $11,000 for her marking.

While the university terminated the rate last month as part of the FWA negotiation, Windscript feels “betrayed” and “angry” and added that insecure employment has taken a heavy toll on her and others in the same situation.

"Like many precarious workers, I have been struggling with chronic and recurrent mental health issues over the years since I entered the university as a PhD student," she said.

Engineering, science and fine arts tutors have also been affected by the underpayments. The university has already repaid roughly 425 engineering students $99,000 “who were not paid for marking that the faculty said should have been completed during tutorials”, the ABC said.

Faculty of Fine Arts and Music staff at the university will also receive letters offering to rectify underpayments for marking that applied the same fixed “piece rate”.

While it is expected that hundreds of employees will endeavour to claim money in lost wages, a statute of limitations means claims can only go back as far as 2014. The university has, however, “ceased all practices that caused underpayment last month and developed a confidential working group that includes human resources management and the unions”.

The University of Melbourne declined an interview with the ABC, but a spokesperson confirmed it was working in a collaborative way with the NTEU to rectify the situation.

"The university agreed with the NTEU's position on these matters and settled them with the union in late 2019," the spokesperson said.

"It was acknowledged previously engaged sessional casuals affected by the dispute would have an opportunity to seek review of their prior attendance and where applicable receive a correction to their pay."

Is wage theft occurring at other universities?

After receiving wage theft allegations from the NTEU, another of Australia’s top universities – The University of Western Australia – told the ABC that it employed “an outside organisation to audit its pay rates”.

Meanwhile, the national broadcaster was told that Macquarie University had repaid $50,000 to casual staff in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics after similar negotiations with the union.

The University of New South Wales, which is a part of the prestigious Group of Eight research-intensive universities, is reportedly conducting an audit after receiving complaints about its Business School. The university has also alerted the Fair Work Ombudsman of the complaints.

A UNSW spokesperson told the ABC that some payments had already been made to underpaid staff, while others are in the pipeline. In addition, “the university is conducting a wage theft audit after an NTEU survey of casual academic staff revealed concerns regarding the payment of wages”.

"We have made additional payments to all identified staff to rectify any errors. The university is now conducting a review into all payments made to casual academic staff in the Business School back to January 2014, assisted by external experts from a large accounting firm (Deloitte)," the spokesperson said.

"We also plan to undertake a review of all other faculties to identify any similar issues."

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One comment

  1. This is a very worrying story, on a number of levels, and I believe it raises fundamental concerns about governance in the Higher Education Sector.

    First, it is distressing that the lowest-paid and most insecure people working at a university should be exploited like this. We all know how it works – a young person on a contract is told not to complain and just get on with the job – it’s possible there might be a permanent position coming up soon – but not if you’re a trouble-maker.

    Second, this story broke on the same day that the Institution in question decided to sack 450 Academics and Support Staff. Yet these are the very people who earn the income for the Institution. I believe there was no mention of the number of Senior Executives who would also be discontinued, many of whom will be on salaries far in excess of what a Professor is paid. Universities are not private companies, and the salaries of their Academics, Support Staff and Executives are provided by the Taxpayer. Surely, then, in a time of financial hardship and mass sackings, there is at least a moral obligation to provide full disclosure on how many Senior Executives a Public Institution has, what their roles and salaries are, and how many it is necessary to retain in a time of crisis.

    Thirdly, once it is revealed that a Public Institution has engaged in wage theft, is it acceptable for the Institution just to say sorry, pay back the money it stole, but then carry on business-as-usual – or is some more permanent and transparent structural change required? This is brought into particularly exquisitely stark focus, when all this is occurring in a time of mass dismissals of staff.

    These are serious matters, which go right to the heart of our trust in Public Institutions and the transparency of their – publicly funded – operations. Surely it is now no longer appropriate simply to wait until the noise dies down, and then carry on with more of the same. A Royal Commission into these matters would not be out of place. Critics might say that a pandemic is not the time to engage in this – but if not now, then when?

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