“Wage Theft” at the Universities

Journalist and Monash University researcher Ben Eltham has made startling claims of deliberate underpayment of casual staff at his university. The comments have reignited debate about corporate management of tertiary education.

The university has admitted to underpaying casuals a total of $8.6 million since 2014. On top of that, Monash is said to be doing everything possible to deflect responsibility. 

In an email to faculty members, University Provost, Professor Sue Elliott, informed them to use the term “unintentional underpayment,” rather than “wage theft,” according to Eltham. Senior management have cancelled meetings with the education union, and refused to release the audit report documenting the “underpayment.”

The Monash debacle follows revelations of underpayment at University of Melbourne, with over $6 million now being repaid to Arts Faculty casuals alone. Melbourne University has an endowment of over $1.3 billion

University of Sydney underpaid staff by more than $12 million, earning it a rebuke from Fair Work Australia. As in the Monash case, university management has kept the audit report secret and gives underpaid staff no meaningful explanation for how underpayment occurred.

The core issue is casual staff being assigned work – like leading tutorial classes or marking assignments – with a fixed time allocation (and fixed amount of pay) for each item. With the time allowance shaved down to an absolute minimum for what is intellectually demanding work, casual staff are faced with either cutting corners or doing unpaid and unacknowledged overtime. What looks like efficiency from a books perspective ends up undermining the quality of the product.

Then there are the shameless accounting tricks taking place at some institutions. Eltham says Monash casuals are seeing their “tutorials” be redefined as “workshops,” “demonstrations” and “practice sessions,” which are paid at a basic hourly rate rather than the tutorial rate, despite the advance preparation that goes into them.

University employees are fortunate to be unionised and have a suite of allies in media and the law, but the dynamic is part of a familiar, ongoing and often counterproductive squeeze on labour by managerial experts lacking an understanding of the sector they manage.

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