University of Sydney underpaid staff by millions, review finds

Acknowledgment comes days after apology from Melbourne

September 13, 2021
University of Sydney
Source: iStock
University of Sydney

Australia’s oldest university underpaid its staff by almost A$13 million (£7 million) over a seven-year period, with hundreds of current and former employees owed more than A$5,000 each.

The University of Sydney says almost 13,000 staff in total were affected by payment errors identified in a review by auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The vast majority were casually employed professional staff who had been inadequately paid for evening or weekend work or for shifts of less than three hours.

The review also found that some permanently employed staff had not been paid for unclaimed overtime and meal allowances, while some academics had not received their full holiday and leave entitlements.

Vice-chancellor Mark Scott vowed to make good. “Clearly there is no acceptable margin of error when it comes to ensuring staff are paid correctly,” he said in a 13 September email to Sydney employees.

“I apologise that these errors have occurred and want to assure you that immediate and swift action is being taken to amend our processes and repay monies owed, including superannuation and interest.”

Professor Scott said the university would begin contacting affected former staff within a fortnight. He said some staff had also been overpaid but the university would not be seeking to recover this money.

He acknowledged that the review may not have identified all underpayments, including any that post-dated it. The university was now reviewing all payments to staff over the past 10 months.

Sydney has also revised its guidelines on the submission and approval of timesheets. “This is a university-wide issue that we are confident can be resolved if we work together to implement consistent and effective controls,” Professor Scott said.

The news emerged several days after University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell apologised for systemic underpayments at his institution. Between 2019 and July 2021, Melbourne has repaid more than A$9.5 million to over 1,000 casual staff from five faculties.

The National Tertiary Education Union has campaigned for years against the systemic underpayment of casual staff, which it regards as wage theft, by at least one-third of Australia’s universities. NTEU members say apologies mean little unless universities do more to improve the working conditions of casual staff.

While the federal government has introduced legislation requiring organisations to grant permanent employment to long-term casual staff, few casual academics work continuously enough to qualify. The rules require staff to have been employed for at least a year and working a regular pattern of hours on an ongoing basis for at least the last six months.

Sydney has reviewed the circumstances of almost 4,200 staff and offered to convert just 69 to permanent employment. “Given the sessional and seasonal nature of much of our work, the majority of our casual workforce do not have a regular pattern of hours on an ongoing basis,” a spokeswoman said.

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