Criminal wage theft in Australian universities

3 March 2023
Chloe Rafferty

University bosses have ripped off workers to the tune of $83 million over the last three years, according to the National Tertiary Education Union, which has uncovered widespread wage theft across the sector.

The NTEU’s Wage Theft Report, released last month, documents 34 separate instances of theft in 22 higher education providers. With cases still ongoing at Monash University, Deakin University and the University of New South Wales, the figure is set to rise to more than $90 million.

The largest instances occurred at some of the richest and most prestigious sandstone universities. Melbourne University ranked number one for wage theft—and number one for executive pay. Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell received $1.5 million last year, higher than any other university boss, while his institution’s total stolen wages bill was more than $31 million.

Rampant casualisation in universities has allowed bosses to structure wage theft into their business model. According to the NTEU, two-thirds of university staff are on casual or fixed-term agreements. At Sydney University, casual staff make up 52 percent of the workforce. If you include fixed-term contracts, the proportion of insecure workers rises to 74 percent.

The Wage Theft Report shows just how systematic wage theft practices are, and how university managements rely on insecure work to get away with them.

Unpaid overtime is one of the biggest contributors to wage theft. It’s easier for universities to set unrealistic time frames for tasks when casual tutors know that their contract is reviewed at the end of each semester. Even the Fair Work Ombudsman was forced to admit that the practice of payment based on fixed rates (rather than time actually worked) has led to “systematic underpayment of employee wages”.

Universities have also been caught dramatically underpaying workers for marking and other work, both inside and outside the classroom.

For some workers, unpaid wages have totalled tens of thousands of dollars. One casual academic at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts had to be paid back $35,000.

But getting caught with their hands in the till has done little to stop university bosses from stealing again. For example, a year after Melbourne University was caught underpaying 1,000 casual academics by $9.5 million, management admitted that it had to pay back another $22 million to more than 15,000 workers.

In this context, the Labor government’s proposed Higher Education Accord is a joke. University workers and students have nothing to gain from round-table discussions with university bosses who can’t abide by the minimum legal employment requirements.

The strategy of cosying up to the bosses and the ALP has gotten us into this situation—a corporatised environment in which higher education becomes a debt burden for students and hyper-exploitative for workers.

The legal victories the NTEU has won so far are a welcome relief for many casual and insecure workers. In the long term, though, it will take much more than legal challenges to fight systemic wage theft. University bosses are mounting legal challenges to halt or whittle down claims made by union members. Monash University, for example, is asking Fair Work for permission to change retroactively the enterprise agreement so that the university’s $8.6 million in wage theft can be made legal.

Workers across the higher education sector will need a broader fight against low wages, real wage cuts and the casual and insecure work that have made wage theft endemic. NTEU members at Sydney University are once again striking this semester for an above-inflation wage rise and more secure work. This is a good start, but we’ll need more and longer strike action coordinated across the sector to undo the damage already done.

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