Union launches dispute with Deakin University over casual payments

The National Tertiary Education Union accused Deakin University of Victoria of paying casual academics for scheduled student assignment, rather than an hourly rate, in a formal notice of dispute filed with the institution.

The alleged breach of the institution’s business 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 salary theft at universities.

NTEU’s Victorian Division Assistant Secretary Sarah Roberts said casual employment and salary theft go “hand in hand” and have been incorporated into university funding models.

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

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

In the dispute notice seen by Guardian Australia, NTEU alleges that Deakin University is directing some casual employees to claim a pre-determined amount for scoring, either on a course basis or by assignment. The union argues that the university’s standardized guidelines underestimate the time needed to correctly schedule assignments and do not reflect reasonable expectations.

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

But Roberts claimed that a union investigation found that piecework fees may have been paid as early as 2018 and the full amount of lost wages was unclear.

“It’s really up to Deakin University to do a thorough review and find out to what extent this is happening,” she said.

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

In Victoria alone, NTEU has helped recoup $30 million in back wages for academic staff, mostly casual employees, at universities such as the University of Melbourne and Monash University.

The University of Melbourne – which has pledged to reduce its reliance on casual employees – paid around $9.5 million to casual academics who were underpaid for teaching. It followed the university regarding some classes as “practice” sessions rather than tutorials to avoid paying employees in full.

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A Senate committee on salary theft, which presented its final report in March, found that at least 21 of Australia’s 40 public universities were implicated in underpaying occasional and full-time staff. It recommended that employers who pay less than employees be criminally prosecuted.

A spokesperson for Deakin University said it was committed to ensuring that the corporate contract application was “true and correct across our entire organization.”

“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 stop paying a piece rate for casual tagging, late paying affected employees, and reviewing its tagging guidelines.

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