You might hear that by going on strike this week, staff are causing harm to students in delaying important processes related to their education. But those of us who work in Student Services know that it’s University management who are responsible for the crisis we find ourselves in.
You might hear that by going on strike this week, staff are causing harm to students in delaying important processes related to their education. But those of us who work in Student Services know that it’s University management who are responsible for the crisis we find ourselves in. As a colleague put it, when speaking to a rally outside Stop 1 during our Week 6 strike, “there is harm [at this university] every single day. This is at an organisational level. It is being directed to the staff with our workloads—non-directed overtime, lack of resourcing and secure work”, which leaves students waiting for crucial support and resources for weeks or months, and staff overworked and burnt out.
This workload crisis in our area is one of the main reasons we’ve decided to undertake another week of industrial action. If you are a student of the University, you will have been impacted by this crisis without even knowing. This is the same reason that you struggle to get access to your tutors, and lecturers. It’s the same reason that getting support from Stop 1 takes longer than you ever thought it could. Or if you have tried to register for ongoing support and had your circumstances worsen as deadlines pass before you get an appointment.
Successive restructures across the university have also seen hundreds of professional staff lose their jobs. In 2014 the University began a wholescale “streamlining” of Student Services that resulted in 450 jobs being cut, and specialised faculty-based services completely eradicated. Our workload crisis is exacerbated by the fact that many job vacancies at the university go unfilled for months on end. These neoliberal measures mean that student experience has suffered, while more and more work ends up on the shoulders of fewer staff because while the number of staff dwindles due to job cuts or people moving on, the work doesn’t. This is why one of our key claims this bargaining round is that management must replace workers who go on extended leave, and they must find new staff to fill vacant roles. At the moment, staff that remain are left to deal with completely unreasonable and unmanageable workloads, and many teams are pushed to the brink.
In Student Services, the result of this is tangible in the wait times students experience for queries about course applications, help with timetabling and special consideration or the frustration students feel due to the lack of face-to-face appointments in which specialist staff can answer questions and provide advice. These teams work incredibly hard to process students’ requests and make themselves available, but the fact is the volume of enquiries is often simply too much for the existing workforce to handle.
Job security is another one of the key claims we are striking for. Higher education is among the most casualised workforces in the entire country. 60% of staff at the university are currently on insecure work contracts. This includes casual employees, many of whom are academic staff, who are strung along by the university for years, offered work semester-to-semester, never knowing if they have a job for the upcoming 6 months, and denied the rights and entitlements of their permanent colleagues. The amount of money the University saves from this is astronomical, as well as literally criminal. Through their organising efforts, casual employees of the University of Melbourne brought to light the biggest wage theft scandals in the country, forcing management to backpay staff around $45 million.
Professional staff in Student Services face similar issues. Many of us, including staff who process key administrative tasks like subject enrolments, find ourselves on fixed-term contracts. The University relies on a big pool of casuals to staff front-line teams and fill the gaps across Stop 1. For some of us, the contracts we have been offered have been as short as 4 weeks. It's an impossible and incredibly stressful existence.
Staff in Student Services share the frustration of students at the university. We have decided to strike again because we want to send a message to management - we won’t put up with the status quo and are determined to fight for a university with decent working conditions and a high standard of education. Join us on the picket lines, and link up with the Students Support the Staff Strikes campaign to show your solidarity. Our fight is stronger together, and as our banner says, “you can Stop 1, but you can’t stop us all.”
Student solidarity campaign - https://www.instagram.com/unimelbstudents4staffstrikes/
NTEU campaign page - https://www.unimelbebanow.com/
Image Source: UniMelb Students Support Staff Strikes. Photo was taken at the June 21 strike; the people displayed within are not neccesarily the authors of this article.