Tally of ‘underpaid’ Australian university staff nears 100,000

All but a handful of universities now tarnished by short-changing scandal, according to academic union

December 5, 2023

Five in six public Australian universities have now become embroiled in the underpayment scandal engulfing the sector, according to a union.

Some 97,000 staff at 26 universities have been short-changed to the tune of A$157 million (£82 million), according to an analysis by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

The union says the tally is almost certain to grow, with unresolved cases at four of the 26 institutions and another four not included in the 26. Some other universities are still to audit their payrolls, the NTEU adds.

“These shocking figures expose the depths of systemic underpayment in Australian universities,” said national president Alison Barnes.

The figures have been released weeks before the Australian Universities Accord panel is expected to hand recommendations to the government in a final report due before Christmas.

The interim report, released in July, identified university governance as a “priority issue” and urged federal, state and territory governments to brainstorm ways of turning universities into “good employers”.

The NTEU says more than 50 separate incidents of “wage theft” have been confirmed so far. At the institutional level, underpayments range in scale from A$12,000 to A$45 million.

“In some cases, internal audits have revealed wage theft, but often it has only been through the work of the union that underpayments are detected and repaid,” the NTEU’s report says.

It says underpayment takes many forms, including teaching misclassification, “sham” contracting and failure to pay overtime after managers “set unrealistic timeframes for marking and other work”.

A culture of underpayment has been fostered by “rampant corporatisation”, “opaque governance arrangements”, “unaccountable university executives” and a “refusal to make the sector-wide changes needed to stop wage theft”, the report says.

University administrators acknowledge the reputational damage and individual harm caused by underpayments, which often affect poorly remunerated casual staff with no job security. But executives say the practice is not deliberate, blaming complex payment rules negotiated decades ago, and university attempts to simplify payment arrangements have been rebuffed by the union.

The fair work ombudsman has castigated universities for a culture of “systemic” underpayment and “passive resistance” to its attempts to bring them into line. Former ombudsman Sandra Parker said the only way to change universities’ behaviour was “to take some of them to court”.

According to the NTEU, the only public universities still untainted by the underpayments scandal are Canberra, Central Queensland, Edith Cowan, Sunshine Coast, Victoria and Western Sydney universities. Private institutions including the quasi-public Australian Catholic University and Notre Dame Australia have also avoided mention.


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