Union launches dispute with Deakin University over payments for casuals

The National Tertiary Education Union has accused Victoria’s Deakin University of paying casual academics per student assignment marked, rather than an hourly rate, in a formal dispute notice lodged with the institution.

The alleged breach of the institution’s enterprise agreement comes amid an underpayment scandal that has plagued Australia’s tertiary sector for the past two years. The Fair Work Ombudsman is investigating 11 cases of potential wage theft at universities.

The NTEU’s Victorian division assistant secretary, Sarah Roberts, said casual employment and wage theft went “hand in hand” and was baked into university funding models.

“It’s the reliance on insecure work that puts people in the position of being too afraid to say that there’s something wrong, because they’re scared of losing their jobs and that’s how the system is set up,” she said.

“All universities are under public funding pressure and they have been for 20 years or more. So the system gives rise to all this insecure work because casual and fixed-term employment is cheaper and you can cut corners, which is what we’re [allegedly] seeing at Deakin.”

In the dispute notice seen by Guardian Australia, the NTEU alleges Deakin University is directing some casual staff to claim a pre-determined sum for marking, based on a per course or per assignment basis. The union argues that the university’s standardised guidelines underestimate the time it takes to properly mark assignments and do not reflect reasonable expectations.

At a March staff briefing, employees were told the university had found “absolutely no evidence of systematic underpayment” during an audit of its payroll system that began in 2020.

But Roberts alleged that an investigation by the union found piece rates may have been paid as far back as 2018 and the total value of lost wages was unclear.

“It’s really down to Deakin University to do a root-and-branch review and figure out to what extent this is happening,” she said.

Casual staff make up 31% of the university teaching workforces, according to federal government statistics.

In Victoria alone, the NTEU has helped recover $30m in back pay for academic staff, primarily casual employees, from universities including the University of Melbourne and Monash University.

The University of Melbourne – which has vowed to reduce its reliance on casual staff – has paid back about $9.5m to casual academics who were underpaid for teaching. It followed the university deeming some classes to be “practice” sessions and not tutorials to avoid paying staff in full.

A Senate committee into wage theft, that tabled its final report in March, found that at least 21 of Australia’s 40 public universities had been implicated in the underpayment of both casual and full-time employees. It recommended that employers who underpay staff face criminal proceedings.

A spokesperson for Deakin University said it was committed to ensuring the application for the enterprise agreement was “true and correct across our organisation”.

“We will work with the union and follow the processes outlined in the EA [enterprise agreement] to understand the specific issues raised,” the spokesperson said.

The union’s dispute notice urges Deakin University to cease paying a piece rate for casual marking, back pay affected staff and revise its marking guidelines.

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