Australia’s universities are blighted by insecure work and wage theft. The sector has already repaid thousands of current and former staff about $100 million. It is expected that figure will balloon in the coming years.
Central to this sprawling wages scandal is the amount of time casual and sessional staff are given to mark essays, meet students and prepare courses.
With marking, casual academics are typically paid a piece rate that is often set at about 4000 words an hour. There is growing evidence that these types of rates dramatically understate how long the work actually takes to do the job properly.
More than half of all workers in Victorian universities are employed as casuals or on fixed contracts, making them fearful of speaking out.
Here are the stories of some of these university workers.
When she was pregnant, casual academic Dr Anastasia Kanjere worked up until 39 weeks and six days, a nerve wracking experience for both her and her students. She returned to work soon after the birth of her daughter.
“I was returning to some form of work when she was two weeks old, that is due to having an incredibly supportive partner,” Kanjere said.
“That didn’t come from my incredibly work-oriented brain. That came from having a paper that had to get written. At that stage, I was still hoping to get an academic career. I was back to full-time work (when my daughter was) four months old.”
Kanjere, currently at La Trobe University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, felt she had little choice but to return to work so soon after the birth of her daughter. She has now worked for 12 years without job security.
At one stage Kanjere was juggling eight separate casual or short-term contracts including for teaching, for marking and as a research assistant. All at the same time. “Honestly, there’s no capacity to plan ahead. When I get offered work I just say yes and work out how I can make it work after.”
On Kanjere’s calculations, she’s been underpaid $52,000 over six years as the number of hours allocated to mark essays was so inadequate. That comes from a salary that works out at about $50,000 a year.
A former convenor of a network of casual workers at La Trobe, Kanjere now wants to leave academia. She says the issues are far deeper than just one university – they’re sector wide. “I’m retraining to leave the industry. I will be one of many dedicated and passionate teachers that have left the sector for the same reason.”
Monash University’s Tony Williams loves teaching history. While doing a masters, he decided against doing a PhD as he did not see the benefits and teaching was what he wanted to do most.
“I get a great deal of satisfaction in the work that I do at Monash,” he says of the teaching roles he has held since 2014. But the weight of years of precarious work with little or no job security has taken its toll.
To supplement teaching history Williams works in a supermarket. “With the two jobs during the semester, I work like a dog seven days a week,” he says. “During that period the money I’m making is good, I’m not struggling to get by.”
But there is lean time between semesters and the lack of permanency makes other life decisions hard. He can’t imagine buying a house as he’d be unable to service a loan just on a supermarket income.
“It kind of feels like you’re treading water … I realised recently I’d been doing this (teaching) for 10 years and if I had an ongoing job, I’d be getting long service leave,” he says.
“It gave me pause to reflect on how depressing it is to have to reapply for my job every six months. I’m 38 this year, and it feels like I’ve kind of done nothing with my life.”
He says he has more than enough work to be employed permanently at the university.
“The last three years I’ve been working the equivalent of full-time hours and more than full-time hours in semester. There’s definitely teaching work. If they chose to give me a full-time job they wouldn’t have problems.”
Williams says he had been underpaid while at Monash and is part of a Federal Court case against the university.
Monash, through a spokesman, said it had taken “significant steps” to improve its payment systems and was “strongly committed to ensuring all staff are paid correctly”.
The disrespect, Williams says, extends to small things with casuals often having their email addresses disconnected at the end of a semester, even though they have worked at the university for years.
“They don’t even tell you if you have a job next semester, and they only tell you if you’re needed. They essentially ghost you.”
“Someone is getting short-changed. It’s going to be either you or the student,” says Pan Karanikolas of working as a casual academic.
Karanikolas, currently at La Trobe University in the department of social inquiry, has worked on short-term casual contracts since 2016 across several universities as a tutor, research assistant and developing courses.
They have never had a longer teaching engagement than a semester with contracts that specify how many hours particular parts of the job should take.
The wage theft has been extensive, they claim, largely through not being paid for the amount of time it takes to mark essays. “For me, it’s been most apparent when doing tutoring or marking work and when students want consultation hours and feedback.”
With marking the only way you could meet the targets would be to skim read. It becomes a choice between short-changing yourself on pay, or the student by not giving their work the attention or feedback it deserves.
“I love the work and I love the students and I really love the discipline, but the insecurity just makes me feel it’s not possible,” they said.
“The fact is the vast majority of work in the sector is fixed-term or casual. I just don’t see much of a future in universities.”
A spokeswoman for La Trobe said its “unintentional underpayments” of staff, which have now reached $8.1 million, were due to outdated systems. “We have now addressed these issues to avoid any future errors.”
Karanikolas, 32, said the perception of working at a university is not matched by reality.
“The general community perception is that a job at a university is a good job. I think a lot of people are surprised that so much of the workforce is in short term or casualised work.”
It was casual academics such as Jessica Marian whose advocacy contributed to exposing the wage theft that has now engulfed Australia’s universities.
Dr Marian began working at the University of Melbourne in 2015 and after several years became part of a campaign to highlight that casual staff were being underpaid.
“It didn’t even occur to people to say ‘I’m gonna make a record of how many hours I’m actually spending,’” she says.
“It was just such a cultural norm in the workplace, ‘you will get paid in this particular way for marking and don’t ask questions, there is no flexibility’.”
Casual academic staff, she said, would routinely put in a timecard with the hours they were told by the university the work would take – not the actual hours they worked. Marian said casual staff were paid to mark 4000 words an hour – but often the work took twice as long. “You’d get paid for 35 hours (a semester) but it may take 70, 80, 90 hours.”
The advocacy has meant the University of Melbourne has paid back $45 million to staff – nearly half the identified wage theft at universities across Australia. Yet, the problems appear systemic across the sector.
A University of Melbourne spokesman said they had undertaken an extensive program “to identify and remediate current and past staff” for underpayments. It said the heavy use of casual employment was no longer “desirable or sustainable”.
Marian received back-pay of $25,000 for six years of work while her partner, also a casual teacher, received a slightly larger payment. They now believe they can buy a house, something they previously thought was unimaginable.
Marian, now on a three-year postdoctoral fellowship, says the university has shifted many casuals onto fixed contracts. Still, there is a gap, she said, between the hours people are paid for and what they work.
“But now it’s not illegal because you’re on a fixed-term contract.”
The answer, she says, is secure ongoing work. “Until we’re not insecure workers there won’t be a respectful, collegial two-way conversation to be had about our conditions.”
“When you’re reliant on your partner to pay for groceries and bills despite the fact that you have a suffix that says doctor, you know something is wrong,” says Victoria Tedeschi, a long-time casual academic.
Tedeschi, with a PhD in literature, said the longest spell of ongoing work she had from 2014 to 2022 was six months. She has mainly worked at Deakin but also at Monash and Melbourne universities.
Tedeschi said the issues were systemic and across all the universities she worked. “They all share the exact same tactics in terms of wage theft,” she says. “They take advantage of academics’ passion. The reason why so many people stay is because they love what they do, and they love the people that they teach.”
She alleges her underpayment was significant, largely from extensive unpaid hours. “At a minimum, and this would be being very kind, there’s about $50,000 in which I’ve been owed collectively over the years. If I’m being more honest, it’s probably $65,000 to $70,000.”
Despite the common perception of university jobs being well paid and secure, Tedeschi would typically make about $40,000 a year.
Tedeschi is now retraining to be a secondary school teacher through the Teach for Australia program which targets high-achieving graduates. “As much as I loved it, and I would say I preferred it even in terms of the content that I’m teaching, it came to a point where I was literally bankrupt, but also emotionally bankrupt.”
Tedeschi says she feels an obligation to speak out as her colleagues still in the sector are “professionally muzzled” with an “absolute fear of reprisal on speaking out”.
Academic philosopher Hiero Badge worked across three universities for half a decade as a casual in contract and sessional roles. “I’ve never been paid for (all) the hours I’ve worked in any of those roles.”
Typically, they’d work 50 to 70 per cent more than the hours they were contracted for.
“On paper you might only be employed four to eight hours a week, but you might be working close to full-time hours and unable to take on other paid work,” they said.
When Badge queried the hours they worked or claimed the actual hours they did they would be told that was not in the contract. “It’s absolutely cooked.”
Badge estimates they were underpaid $20,000 to $30,000. Some semesters Badge could teach three classes with up to 120 students.
“There’s a huge amount of admin you don’t get paid for, that’s always there. You might have additional stuff, and they might encourage early career staff to update a unit.”
The pay was lumpy and there was significant stress. Badge recalls being “thousands of dollars in debt through not being able to pay bills on time”.
Part of that was due to managing complex university administrative systems to get paid, but also the reality of the work.
“There’s a plentiful rainy season and quite a long season of drought. That’s one of the reasons so many casual academics live in or teeter on the edge of poverty.”
Badge is now out of academia and working in retail as well as doing research for the National Tertiary Education Union about wage theft.
“I loved teaching and I loved research. It’s work, and it’s hard work, marking 200 essays in a weekend is not fun,” they said. “I just decided it was harming my mental health that I couldn’t do it on an ongoing basis anymore.”
When starting out Badge was advised by a mentor not to pursue a career in academia. “He smiled and laughed and told me not to. Me, being a very young, 20-something did not listen to that very sage advice.”
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