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Underpaying Casual Staff and Forgetting Education: The Australian University Formula

Scandalous underpayment has become common fare at Australia’s universities. An inverse relationship can be identified here: the wealthier the institution, the more likely it will short-change staff and avoid coughing up the cash. If anything is coughed up, it will be meagerly rationed. We are not all in this together.

The casualization of the Australian university workforce is a process that has chugged along for three decades or so. Doing so alleviates the need to pay an ongoing workforce in conditions that are less secure in terms of employment but more beneficial to the institution’s management line. There is no need to pay sick leave; holidays are unremunerated. Lengthy dry spells exist for such casuals during times where teaching does not take place. They are voiceless, fearful and oppressed.

The University of Melbourne, for instance, possesses a chest of AU$4.43 billion in reserves. But keeping in the best traditions of nineteenth century capitalism and working poor exploitation, it has 72.9% of staff in insecure employment.

Not happy with such a favourable state of affairs, universities have taken COVID-19 as a call to further axe, underpay and trim. In July, a survey conducted by the University of Sydney Casuals Network in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences found that casual academics have been underpaid during the COVID-19 crisis. The findings are grim: 77% concerned about losing employment; 82% reporting that extra unpaid work had been done in the first semester of 2020 and 60% “likely to leave academia.” The move to online forms of course delivery have also seen employees within the Faculty incur additional expenses.

What is discouragingly interesting in the survey is that coronavirus was merely a catalyst for inspiring a situation already rotten. It did not help that the University of Sydney’s reliance on its Chinese student base, as with a good number of Australian teaching institutions, was scandalously disproportionate.

This month, the institution finally admitted that it had underpaid staff. The errors, it assured critics, were unintentional. Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence went so far as to suggest that the university had been vigilant in pursuing the matter. The situation was revealed “after we proactively initiated a preliminary review of payroll records.” With dreary predictability, it transpired that the “identified errors mainly affect some professional casual employees.” While seemingly apologetic, Spence insisted on minimising the nature of the harm, with a view to placating the corporate investor: “we expect that the total amount involved will be less than 0.5% of our annual payroll cycle.”

The list of offenders is bulking. In June, the University of New South Wales Business School was the subject of interest, having underpaid casual academic staff for a goodly number of years. “Any underpayments for existing or former casual academic staff identified in the review,” noted the university’s official publication, “will be fully rectified, including payment of additional superannuation and interest.”

The University of Melbourne is in the process of repaying up to 1,500 academics across four faculties in what was nothing less than wage theft. Central to the dispute was a rebadging of tutorials as “practice classes,” a typical obscenity of management speak. Different wording, different level of pay (a third, to be exact). Cheerily for students and underpaid staff, only three minutes had been allocated to mark student assessments. Within an hour, the marker was required to digest 4,000 words and comment on the assessments. A miserable return for all, except for the miscellany of unnecessary departments and services that support the modern university.

Others have also joined the underpayment club, much of it centred on the speedy manner academics are supposedly meant to dispatch assessments. The University of Queensland, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Murdoch University have been identified for practices of low marking rates and, in some cases, ungraded assessments.

At RMIT, the marking rate has proven a touch more generous than its Melbourne University counterpart: a princely 10 minutes, but still absurdly small in halving the previous allocation. It is now the subject of a claim being made to the Fair Work Commission by the National Tertiary Education Union.

Such employment practices in Australian universities have been aided and abetted. Alison Barnes, the NTEU president, has mastered the art of speaking with a forked tongue. She boasts about the NTEU recovering millions in lost wages for members and promises “to launch a wave of class action. We do not believe wage theft is confined to the ten universities that have admitted to it.”

The same sanctimonious Barnes, along with fellow national executives, attempted to foist a “national framework” upon members and university management to accept some 18,000 job losses across the tertiary sector along with reduced pay. It was advertised in a manner least candid and most monstrous. “The Jobs Protection Framework,” noted an NTEU propaganda booklet in May, “means everyone gets a lifejacket. Casuals, fixed term, permanent, low paid, high paid, everyone.”

The measure was defeated by a grass roots revolt of some fury culminating in the NTEU Fightback campaign, a surprise to both union executives and management. Seventeen universities rejected the plan. But from the still burning cinders, some Vice-Chancellors saw conspiratorial hope. La Trobe University Vice-Chancellor John Dewar urged colleagues to take heart: the collapse of the framework had not been “a complete failure because … it has shown what could be done through a collaborative approach between unions and management.”

Dewar’s assessment had a certain ring of truth to it. Undeterred by its abysmal failure, the NTEU executive has gone full blackguard, making piecemeal deals with individual universities to achieve the same object. This initiative is taking place alongside handholding gestures with big business in an effort to secure more Commonwealth government funding. Barnes, for instance, is encouraged by the words of Business Council Executive Jennifer Westacott praising the need for leaders with a “humanities mindset”, one understanding of “the human condition.” When will platitudes end?

The University of Adelaide was this month’s notable scalp for tertiary sector skulduggery, with Acting Vice-Chancellor Mike Brooks accepting a deal between management and the NTEU’s national executive “in principle.” Under clause 19.2 of the agreement, wage reductions can be made to “an amount equivalent to a maximum total of 15 percent of staff member’s salary in any given pay period.” Reductions will be achieved via the purchasing of compulsory leave, deferrals of pay rises, the scrapping of annual holiday pay loading.

The union movement is in freefall. The rank-and-file have been abandoned by the executives within the NTEU who have long collaborated with university management through such beastly compromises as the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement. The only enterprise shown in such agreements tends to be the bargaining away of basic rights and liberties. Work casualization has been one of its most noxious fruits. The battle, in short, is being waged both within the union movement and against university management. Much bloodletting is promised and the one word not mentioned in all of this: education. Having been abandoned, humiliated and shamed, may it rest in undisturbed peace.


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  1. New England Cocky

    There is little doubt that the long term consequences of the Dawkins reforms combined with the boredom of too many academics disenchanted with their specialities and so seeking an easy sinecure to frustrate those of their former colleagues who had the tenacity, talent and skills to be successful academics will likely be the sole survivors of the COVID-19 cleanout.

    The huge revenues from full fee paying foreign North Asian students has only exacerbated the situation by inflating the number and salary packages of the too many Pro Vice Chancellors for Anything.

  2. Phil Pryor

    Vice chancellor conspiracy, if it is so and can be proven, seems to follow conventional wisdom in corporate control fleecing, bloodsucking and parasitic extraction, in that these turds aim and hit the target, so defined, of lucrative, easy targets, able to be sucked deeply if not dry. Attila the hun and William the murdering, bludging, thieving, oppressing conqueror, are synbols, idols of worship, great examples, of the tendency to thieve AND exploit, if and when one can, get it now, first, hoard it, control it, WIN, for such is the kingdom of filthy greed, self inflation, swollen ego, career expansion, places in books, and at tables, board rooms, strange beds, great offices…

  3. Regional Elder

    Thank you for this article on the parlous state of Australia’s universities, and by implication, the impacts this Is now having will continue to have on Australian community.
    The Editorial from ‘ The Saturday Paper today, 22/08/20, ( see below) is well worth reading as well. While Labor’s John Dawkins set this in train, the Liberals have worked hard since, to nobble the universities and intellectual life.

    The Revenge on Theory

    It has been said that Scott Morrison’s great skill is for accidents. He even made his leadership look like one, moving a column of votes at the last minute.

    For a while now he has pretended that the destruction of the university sector is an accident, too. He ignored the calls to offer JobKeeper, and waited for the staff to be sacked. He pretended not to notice, as a sector dependent on international students lost its key revenues.

    For him, the pandemic has been an insurance fire of the humanities. In the first months he stood back and feigned despair. A disaster was unfolding and his urgent focus was elsewhere. There were tradesmen out of work and universities already received government monies. As journalist Richard Cooke has noted in The Monthly, Morrison is every bit as ideologically driven as Tony Abbott – he just has more cunning.

    Still, the accident wasn’t enough. Education Minister Dan Tehan went out with a jerry can, promising to double the cost of arts degrees. Maths and agriculture would be cheaper to study. So would teaching and nursing.

    Hundreds of academic jobs have been lost in the meantime. It is estimated that by the end of the year 21,000 university staff will be unemployed. Tehan’s next plan is to cancel government support for students who are failing in their first year.

    There is talk of amalgamations. It is not clear whether all universities will get through this. Many academics will not return to work, certainly not to the work for which they have prepared.

    The accident no longer looks like an accident. It looks like a concerted effort to destroy academe. For years the Coalition has cut away at research funding. It has forced universities to become more precarious. It has narrowed the intellectual life of campuses.

    At the very time we need universities to help invent a new Australia, the government is intent on turning them into technical colleges.

    This is about a view that says to be intellectual is to be inefficient, that thinking is a waste of time. It is a revenge on theory, a punishment for every question that has been asked of the orthodoxies on which a conservative outlook is based.

    It is hard to know where these new graduates are to be sent. To work in a defunded CSIRO, or in firms disincentivised from innovation? Perhaps some will work in green energy, in the few companies that survive the government’s undermining.

    After this pandemic, we will see the full extent of the damage. We will see the ash and ruin. The prime minister will likely tell us what a tragedy it was.

  4. wam

    I wrote that low entrance qualifications that allowed thousand of enrolments into degree courses. The vast majority were accruing debts with not realistic hope of a job.
    The vice chancellor objected to my conclusion that this was an exercise in bums on seats and using the cash in general expenses.
    When sharpies get access to government money there is an exponential rise in rorts
    The rabbott allowed institutions’ snouts into the troughs and, if melbourne uni are thieves, goodness knows how much they have slurped.
    Time to replace HECS and HELP.

  5. Brozza

    Once upon a time, Oz universities were actually about higher education.

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