Tutors at ‘tipping point’, Students Suffering During Wage Theft-Pandemic Double Hit

7 December 2020

Tutors are asked to mark 1,000 words per half hour – could you do it?

First year Arts student Sam Warner did not expect to spend most of 2020 talking to his tutors from his bedroom.

 He says the transition to online learning has been difficult but he can also see the strain it has had on his tutors.

 He said that one of his subjects has just two tutors for around 250 students and this has affected the feedback he has received.

 “Some [assessments] are taking a really long time to mark and they said that’s just because there’s so many students and not enough staff.”

Packed Zoom classes, brief feedback, awkward online assessments every student has a version of Sam’s story. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis for the tertiary sector, casual tutors often had to choose between doing the work they were paid for and providing adequate support to students. 

 The University of Melbourne has been locked in a wage theft dispute with the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) since early 2019. The Union found that payment practices in the Faculty of Arts, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, and the School of Computer and Information Systems meant that tutors were being paid a set rate for marking students’ work, rather than for the hours they actually spent marking.

 Olivia* is a tutor in the Faculty of Arts’ School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. She told Farrago that marking time varies from essay to essay and many take longer than the 4,000 words per hour the Faculty actually pays her for.

 “Some are really clear cut, some are not clear cut at all and will take days, honestly.”

 Daniel* is a teaching staff member in the School of Architecture, Building and Planning. ABP is not one of the faculties being investigated for wage theft, but Daniel says the faculty owes him thousands of dollars in wages. 

In one subject Daniel teaches, tutors often mark as many as ten essays in the hour they are paid for. That equates to just six minutes per essay. 

 “How can you read and engage with a piece of work in six minutes and give appropriate feedback to the student?”

 Daniel said that wage theft is “nothing new” in his faculty and students are suffering, not least because subject coordinators design assessments based on how long they take to mark.

 “Students should always be at the centre of anything that you design in your subject,” he said. “I don’t think it’s good practice to design an assessment task based on how long it will take to mark it.”

 Marking is at the centre of the NTEU’s dispute with three University Faculties – Arts, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, and the School of Computer and Information Systems – but it is not the only practice the Union has contested. NTEU representative Geraldine Fela said the expectation that tutors attend lectures, answer emails and consult students in their own time forces them to choose between working the hours they’re paid for and giving students the feedback they deserve.

 Fela, a branch committee member for the NTEU, tutored a subject she’d never taught last semester. She said students would have got more from her as a teacher if the University had paid for her to attend lectures.

 “My tutoring was not as good as a result,” she said.

 Olivia said that the University has “absolutely no idea how much time any of these tasks take.”

 “I don’t get paid to answer a single student email,” Olivia said. “[But] If you emailed a tutor and they didn’t respond to you because they don’t get paid for it, you’d think that’s a shit tutor. 

 “The University expects you to do it, they just don’t expect to pay you for it.”

 In a statement provided to Farrago, a University of Melbourne spokesperson said that the University agreed with the Union’s position and settled in late 2019. When we asked them why Arts tutors like Olivia were still being paid piece rates, they said: “Information about matters that the University resolved with the NTEU in late 2019 has been provided to tutors.”

Olivia also said that many tutors are doing even more unpaid work in the shift to online learning. She said there has also been more emotional work as tutors have had to manage students’ mental wellbeing. 

“You worry about students who aren’t coming into Zoom classes,” she said. “It’s easier to let students fall through the cracks, which is really stressful.” 

 “I think that’s why we’re all sort of at a tipping point right now, because we don’t have the capacity that we usually have to deal with being taken advantage of.”

 Daniel said that the pandemic has also taken a financial toll. The budget for one of his subjects was cut significantly this semester and Daniel found himself doing more work with larger class sizes and less one-on-one time with students. 

“I didn’t want the students to suffer,” he said.

 Olivia said that she will continue to work overtime because she wants students to have good feedback.  But she said uncertain job security also plays a role in casual staff doing more work than they’re paid for.

 “If you don’t give good feedback, you don’t get good feedback from the students, and you potentially don’t get rehired,” she said. “It [The University] relies on us having a vocation to teach, wanting to teach, wanting to be good tutors. It relies on knowing that if we don’t do it, somebody else will.”

 The NTEU estimates that the University will have to pay out $6 million in unpaid wages to current and former staff. Fela said the University cannot use the financial hit of the pandemic as an excuse to stall or get out of paying up.

 “You don’t get to steal money off people and then not pay it back just because times are tough.”

 Fela said that, despite the difficult circumstances, tutors do teach very well – a sentiment Sam Warner agrees with. 

 “It’s just a matter of them [the University] providing support, because I think the tutors and the staff are very eager to help,” he said.

 “It’s hard for us too,” said Daniel, whose passion for teaching comes through, even over Zoom. 

“I hope that the students understand that we are trying as hard as we can with what we have to ensure they have as good an education as possible.”


*Names changed at sources’ request.

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