Australian academics ‘paid with gift vouchers’

Universities say they proactively uncover underpayments, but former casual claims they only acknowledge the obvious cases

February 22, 2022
Shop assistant giving the customer a gift card
Source: iStock

One Australian university pays casual academics with gift vouchers, while another avoids paying them properly by forcing them to classify teaching as an “other required activity”, a Senate committee has heard.

Creative writing tutor Hayley Singer said she had received a gift voucher as remuneration for serving on a PhD panel at a university that she declined to name. She said that the university routinely used vouchers to pay guest lecturers and “industry professionals”.

Dr Singer said she had sat in on meetings where management had proposed the practice and “could not believe that there would be a problem with paying highly specialised people with a gift card”.

“This is how casual insecurely employed academics are treated when we bring our professionalism and expertise onto campus and into the classroom,” Dr Singer told the Senate’s economics references committee, which is exploring illegal underpayment across the Australian workforce. “I can’t pay rent, transport [or] medical bills with gift cards. Does a gift card have superannuation attached to it?”

Former Monash University tutor “Greg”, who testified to the committee under a pseudonym, said managers kept the wages bill down by “coercing” casual staff to misclassify tutorials on their time sheets. “The core function of a university…is being described as an ‘other required activity’,” he said.

He accused the university of “changing the language around teaching” while maintaining its structure, form and content. “That means…staff are not paid at all for their preparation. People are being left with only one-third of [what] they are owed, in extreme cases.”

Liberal Party senator Paul Star, the committee’s deputy chair, said the practice reflected on universities’ services as well as their treatment of staff. “I would hope that our universities are teaching substance over form, to be frank, and that should apply to the timesheets as well as critical thinking.”

Late last year, Monash committed to repay over A$8.6 million (£4.6 million) in unpaid wages dating back to 2014. But “Greg” said this figure only represented underpayments that had been “picked up as a mistake” because people had categorised tasks as “other required activity” while describing them as “tutorial” in the comment section of payment claim forms.

“[Monash is] only admitting to situations where they failed to properly coerce the staff into hiding their own wage theft,” he told the inquiry. “It’s a fraction of what staff are owed.”

Monash vice-chancellor Margaret Gardner told the hearing that she had initiated an institution-wide review of payments to sessional academics over six-and-a-half years, after being alerted to problems through a complaint in a single faculty. The university had also implemented a new casual staff scheduling system, boosted training on payment processes and appointed dedicated human resources staff to perform “additional quality assurance checks”.

Professor Gardner said that the review had been “a very significant piece of work” involving huge numbers of staff. “I think what you see in that is good faith. It’s the good faith of people trying to be good employers.”

The National Tertiary Education Union has filed a dispute over La Trobe University’s use of “illegal piece rates” to pay casual academic employees for marking. The union believes the practice adds more than A$2 million to the A$3.5 million of historical underpayments acknowledged by the university in December.

La Trobe said its independent review had already identified “an issue around marking” before the union lodged the dispute, with the shortfall estimated at A$2.5 million. “We hope to resolve this matter and pay any affected staff as soon as possible,” a spokeswoman said.

The University of New England said that it had identified errors in payments to former staff now employed by its subsidiaries, in addition to some A$1.1 million in underpayments to almost 1,700 staff uncovered in 2020. “That may lead to an additional payment,” vice-chancellor Brigid Heywood told the committee.

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