Politics

University of Melbourne says Fair Work changes not enough to boost academics’ job security


The university’s Provost, Professor Nicola Phillips, also apologised on behalf of the institution for years of underpaying casual employees, a situation similar to that of Sydney University, which admitted in 2020 to tens of millions of dollars in underpayments over six years.

National Tertiary Education Union president Dr Alison Barnes called on other universities to make the same concessions about the effects of casualisation.

‘Academics are not interns, they are not gig workers.’

Academic Nicholas Robinson

“If universities don’t admit their business models are broken, the Morrison government must make a genuine effort to address the gross overuse of insecure work,” Dr Barnes said.

But a Sydney University spokesperson said one-third of its casual academic staff were senior professionals such as judges and business figures, while another third were PhD students, “working to build their teaching credentials and supplement scholarships”.

The spokesperson said the remaining third were seeking permanent academic work. “And we do need to continue to address the particular challenges these staff might experience.”

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Stuart Andrews, executive director of peak industry body the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, said only a small proportion of casuals had converted to permanency through the new regime as many were employed on a short-term basis.

University of Melbourne lecturer Dr James Stratford told the inquiry he had been employed on a casual basis since 2000 and was offered a permanent position last year, only for it to be withdrawn.

“It meant [my son and I] could finally get our own home … and that we could plan for holidays. We could live with a degree of security that we’ve never had,” Dr Stratford said of the offer.

“Five days later, I received a second phone call telling me the offer was off the table, even though I had most unambiguously accepted it. It’s difficult to overemphasise how crushing this was. It was utterly humiliating.”

Another academic, Nicholas Robinson, said after beginning at the university in 2017, he had “nothing resembling a believable path to secure employment”.

“I see now that I fell prey to the collective dream of exceptionalism which runs rampant at the University of Melbourne,” he said. “Academics are not interns, they are not gig workers. They write courses from scratch that they teach sometimes for years on end, supervise thesis degrees, conduct research.”

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