Casual Work: The casualties of Melbourne University sessional staffing7 May 2019
The implementation of mandatory Working With Children Checks (WWCCs) at the University of Melbourne has added to concerns of unfair treatment of casual staff, putting the quality of education at the University at risk. Legislation was rolled out at the end of 2018 to account for the small percentage of university students that are still minors, but it does not specify who should pay for the checks, and casual staff are bearing the burden.
Unlike their full-time colleagues, casual staff are not covered by the University, and must fork out $123.40 to meet the WWCC requirement. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) wants the University to reimburse the full cost of the fee. According to Annette Herrera, an NTEU branch committee member for casual employees at the University, the issue impacts over 4000 staff and can realistically be covered by the University.
However, the WWCC issue is “only the tip of the iceberg” according to Herrera—a small part of a large problem that involves allegations of underpaid employees, wage theft, and insecure work for casual employees.
Joe*, a casual tutor as well as an academic at the School of Culture and Communication (SCC), weighed in on the costs for casual staff.
“On average casuals make a whole lot less money than permanent staff, and, unlike permanent staff, we mostly have no assurance our contracts will be renewed semester to semester,” he said. “It seems pretty tone deaf to make the most financially vulnerable employees pay an amount which would be negligible for the University but is quite a lot on a casual tutor’s wage.”
He added,“The WWCC incident is just one of the many ways that school management treats casuals as a problem rather than what we actually are—world class educators and researchers.”
Casual workers are often forced to choose whether to help their students outside of hours, as their contracts and pay do not account for it. “Teachers love their students,” Herrera said, and they are “not getting paid for putting students first.” The new WWCC cost only adds further to the strain.
Joe said that the University is “effectively getting free labour on a large percentage of teaching duties”, but, in the end, a “sub-par class is actually all the University is paying for.”
Herrera concedes that ultimately it is the University who decides how to spend its money, but it has chosen to put the pressure onto individual faculties, which must decide whether they will pay the WWCC fee for casuals. She remarked that some faculties, such as the Graduate School of Education, said that they would cover their casual staff on the basis that failing to do so would be inequitable.
An increase in casual staff has been raised as a concern in many university institutions. Almost 50% of staff at the University of Melbourne—comprising “lecturers, tutors, research assistants, coordinators, lab technicians, administrators, project officers, customer service, ICT support, [and] library workers” according to the NTEU—are employed on a casual basis, despite that many of them “have worked here for years”. Benjamin Kunkler, a casual at the Asia Institute and SCC, believes that it is a “general trend across the University.”
“Casuals are meant to be cheap, and convenient—and the WWCC is an extra expense,” Joe said. “The truth is the whole University sector in Australia has been using casuals as a budgetary band-aid for decades.”
Moreover, Kunkler said that the University of Melbourne “likes to look and sound like a responsible employer, but often their practical decisions show the opposite, disadvantaging sessional staff and students at the same time.”
There is also concern surrounding how poorly the new requirement has been communicated to staff along with the policies surrounding the WWCC and payment options.
Some permanent staff have been appalled to discover the discriminatory conduct. Joe attested that “All the permanent staff I’ve spoken to support casuals in fighting the decision—they had no idea we didn’t have it covered by the school.”
Kunkler observed the same strong reaction from some permanent workers but said that “other full-time staff are indifferent.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the University of Melbourne said that the checks were introduced late last year “in order to ensure a safe environment for children and meet the University’s obligations under the Victorian Child Safe Standards.”
Nobody that Farrago spoke to disputed the importance of complying with these standards. Kunkler pointed out that the WWCC is designed to protect the vulnerable, and “vulnerability does not disappear when [students] matriculate.”
However, he went on to say that “Sessional staff are on the front line of teaching, working closely with the students in the tutorials, meeting with them for consultations, and so on. What does it say about how seriously the University management takes the issue of child safety, if they are unwilling to do all they can to ensure staff are safe to work with children?”.
Furthermore, with “only a small pool of students being under eighteen,” Herrera questions how the information gathered from the WWCC is being used, as there has been a lack of transparency in the University’s information policy.
There has been widespread support for the campaign to have casual staff reimbursed for the WWCC fee, with over 423 petition signatures at the time of writing. Herrera is confident that the campaign will succeed and said that if the NTEU wins by earning a reimbursement, it will send a clear message that the Union “will push back” and “continue to call out differential treatment of staff.”
In a bid to gain support for the campaign, NTEU has reached out to the University of Melbourne Student Union and the Graduate Student Association. Unfortunately, they were unable to confirm their support or provide a comment to Farrago.
If the University chooses to support the reimbursement, it may improve its image as a global and modern leader in higher education. According to Herrera, it is up to the University to determine the image it presents to the world, and she questions why, if the University insists on world-class facilities, “don’t [casual staff] have world-class working conditions?”
In response to the campaign, a spokesperson for the University of Melbourne stated that “the University is currently reviewing the process … and will consider the feedback received to date on areas of improvement and concerns raised from the introduction of the WWCC process.”
Despite the University opening an avenue for discussion, some are afraid to come forward in case it jeopardises their prospects of being re-hired in the future.
“There is a sense among sessionals of anxiety about agitating to improve our conditions, because we worry that full time/tenured staff may find us a nuisance, and not hire us for the same subjects next time,” Kunkler said.
“I think this fear is sometimes pre-emptive and paranoid, though understandable given the general conditions of insecure work.”
Herrera says that it is vital to increase student awareness, citing that it was learning about her own lecturer’s situation when she was a student that prompted her to get involved with the situation of casual employees at the University. “Staff conditions affect student learning conditions. It’s a staff issue [and] it’s a student issue. It affects everyone,” she said.
*Individual’s name has been been changed.
Full Statement from the University of Melbourne
“Every day, members of the University of Melbourne community interact with children, both as our students and in a variety of other settings including through our child care centres, during outreach to secondary schools, during school visits to campus and while conducting research at home and abroad.
In order to ensure a safe environment for children and meet the University’s obligations under the Victorian Child Safe Standards, the University introduced late last year measures to ensure appropriate fit and proper checks take place and we now require many employees to hold a valid Working With Children Check (WWCC).
The University is currently reviewing the process following the extensive implementation phase and will consider the feedback received to date on areas of improvement and concerns raised from the introduction of the WWCC process.”
University of Melbourne Spokesperson (statement)