University of Melbourne to ‘significantly’ reduce reliance on casual contracts after underpayment scandal

University of Melbourne provost Nicola Phillips has apologized for the institution’s underpayment and announced that the university will review its employment model and “significantly” reduce its reliance on the casual staff in response to the scandal.

“We are appalled that this has happened… In this case, we did the wrong thing. And we are working very hard to fix it,” she said at 7:30 p.m. in an exclusive interview.

The university sector has been plagued by revelations of widespread underpayment over the past two years, with a Senate investigation finds half of all universities implicated and the Fair Work Ombudsman is currently investigating at least a dozen.

Professor Phillips announced that the University of Melbourne would revise its employment model and reduce its heavy reliance on casual staff, which she acknowledged was partly to blame for underpayment widespread of the institution.

Nicola Phillips says the University of Melbourne is “appalled” that staff have been underpaid.(ABC News: Nadia Daly)

“We plan to significantly reduce our reliance on casual contracts as a means of employing staff,” she revealed at 7:30 a.m.

“We have identified that this type of model is not one that serves the university well, and it is not one that serves our employees well, and we are determined that going forward, we will rethink this model, reduce our reliance on casual staff and ensure we put in place something more sustainable for the future.”

Prof Phillips said the university “has not costed” how many casual roles will be reviewed or converted to permanent positions, or the time frame over which the overhaul will take place.

“Endemic underpayment throughout the sector”

Sandstone buildings on the University of Melbourne campus.
The University of Melbourne has “failed to do the right thing”, provost Nicola Phillips said.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

The National Union for Higher Education (NTEU) and some experts, such as ANU Higher Education Policy Professor Andrew Norton, have called for a reduction in reliance on casual staff at universities, as they also think that precariousness is a major factor of underpayment.

“Underpayment of wages is rampant across the industry,” NTEU director Alison Barnes said at 7:30 a.m.

“The problem would be solved if employment relationships in universities were secure, if people were employed in secure, continuous and permanent jobs.”

Professor Norton said: ‘Academics who have had an open-ended contract or a fixed-term contract for several years, we really haven’t seen the high underpayment error for those people.’

“The margin of error is much, much lower than for casuals,” he said.

“And so that’s really where we need to move to a larger percentage of the college workforce on one of these more general contracts that don’t have detailed hourly tasks.”

“Like a slap in the face”

A man with a mustache sits outside.
Hamish McIntosh claims he was underpaid by Melbourne University’s Victorian College of the Arts.(ABC News: Kyle Harley)

Despite the University of Melbourne’s ongoing review to stamp out underpayment, 7:30 can reveal that the university’s prestigious Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) School of Dance is the latest institution to face to claims for underpayment.

She is in conflict with the NTEU, which is trying to recover the salaries of the staff.

Former University of Melbourne occasional dance teacher Hamish McIntosh is one of those claiming underpayment.

He started teaching dance at the VCA in 2019, but last year he was told of his role and the classes he was teaching would be reclassified, which meant he would be paid less.

“To quote the letter itself, management suggested that the courses my colleagues and I taught were not based on epistemology and that we lacked the intellectual expertise for the courses to be classified as tutorials per se,” McIntosh said at 7:30 a.m.

7.30 has seen letters from management detailing the reclassification, which state that “most of our hands-on courses do not meet the company agreement definition of what constitutes a tutorial, i.e. a additional course linked to a lecture”.

Mr McIntosh said he found the letter and characterization of staff expertise offensive.

“I have a first class Masters in Dance Studies, am internationally published in Dance Pedagogy, have presented research on Dance Pedagogy and have been teaching at universities since 2018.

“So it’s kind of like a slap in the face [to be told] you do not have the intellectual expertise for this work to be considered a regular tutorial.”

7.30 understands the university has now reversed its decision to reclassify the tutorials – however, Mr McIntosh has since left and believes he owes around $5,000 in salary, which he is working with the union to recover.

“Which to viewers may not seem like a lot of money,” he said at 7:30 a.m., “but to me as a graduate student, it’s a huge amount of money. I was counting on that money .”

A building on the University of Melbourne campus.
The University of Melbourne is conducting a review to stamp out underpayment.(ABC News: Patrick Stone)

Professor Phillips declined to comment specifically on the dance school issue, but promised ‘if a problem arises we will fix it’.

“I want to make it very clear that it’s not the university’s approach to reclassify roles for this purpose,” she told 7:30 a.m.

“There are some complexities around role classifications, but when they arise, we work them out with our staff and with the union as well.”

The NTEU is calling on the federal government to introduce legislation requiring universities to employ more full-time staff.

In a statement, Education Minister Jason Clare told 7.30am the new government planned to criminalize wage theft.

Watch this story on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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