Office staff's role blurs in class

July 10, 1998

ALMOST every year for the past 50 years, universities in Australia have faced some sort of review. Most focused on the role of academics, even though general staff outnumber them by about three to one.

The fact that academics get all the top jobs and the social status, plus higher salaries and free trips overseas, has led to general staff being likened to a "forgotten people".

But the distinctions between general and academic work are blurring, says a study for the federal education department by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training at the University of Sydney. "Most general staff in universities are women and the relative size of the clerical workforce means they are disproportionately located in lower-level positions," the report says.

Industrial relations arrangements do not adequately reflect these changes, the study says. It points to an underlying feeling, particularly among general staff unions, that members are at a disadvantage compared with academic staff in areas where their responsibilities overlap.

There is a huge salary differential. An academic at the top level of the salary scale, for example, will earn more than Aus$90,000 (Pounds 33,500) this year whereas a general staff member on the highest level will be paid only Aus$60,000.

Similarly, while a newcomer employed in an administrative, professional or technical post will be lucky if she makes Aus$12,000 a year, a young lecturer on the lowest level will be paid nearly three times this sum.

But when the researchers visited universities they found that some administrators were lecturing in business studies and that many academics spent most of their time doing administration. "In laboratory areas, professional officers were being increasingly called on to undertake tutoring and/or lecturing at the undergraduate and, at times, postgraduate level," the report states.

Even with the differences in salary and status, however, when general staff were asked if they would like to obtain academic classifications, most professional officers preferred the certainty of standard hours, holidays and pay rates to what were seen as less defined "academic" conditions, particularly given the sharp rise in contract and sessional work.

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