A new report has revealed that Australian universities, including those at the top, have underpaid their staff by at least $83 million (US$57 million) since 2020. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) published an analysis (pdf) that identified 34 cases of wage theft in the higher education sector in the last three years. In these cases, the union estimated that employees were owed a total of $83.4 million. If three other ongoing cases are added to the analysis, the figure will likely exceed $90 million. The report stated that the NTEU had recovered millions of dollars in wage theft for employees, and that some universities had admitted wrongdoing when their cases were brought to light, while others took legal action to fight against the allegedly underpaid staff.
The University of Melbourne, the number one higher education provider in Australia, was found to owe the most with $31.6 million in underpaid salaries and wages. Other top violators were the University of Sydney and Monash University, which were estimated to underpay their staff by $12.7 million and $8.6 million, respectively. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, a popular university, was also on the list with $10 million in underpayment. Victoria was the jurisdiction with the highest amount of owed wages and salaries at $50 million, followed by New South Wales at $25 million and Queensland at $2 million.
“Systemic wage theft has been baked into universities’ business models,” said National Tertiary Education Union’s national president Alison Barnes. The union branded the underpayment practice “shameful,” saying big universities raked in massive profits and senior executives enjoyed millions of dollars in salaries at the expense of hard-working staff. Barnes added, “The sheer scale of wage theft in higher education is staggering. It’s absolutely shameful that so many Australian university staff have had wages stolen.” The union attributed the underpayment issues to the mass casualisation of teaching and supporting positions at Australian universities and called for more workers to have access to secured jobs. It also urged the federal government to criminalise wage theft, impose tough penalties on guilty employers and investigate university governance.
The report comes as the University of Melbourne is now facing further legal action over allegedly underpaying casual staff and making false or misleading records between 2017 and 2019. The Fair Work Ombudsman recently announced that it had sued the university for allegedly contravening the Fair Work Act by failing to pay 14 casual staff at the hourly rates required under its enterprise agreement during the period. The ombudsman alleged that the university paid 14 casual staff at the Faculty of Arts for marking work based on “benchmarks” rather than enterprise agreements. This resulted in an estimated total underpayment of $154,000 for the 14 casual staff, ranging between $927 and $30,140 for each individual. This also led to the Fair Work Ombudsman alleging that the University of Melbourne engaged in making false or misleading records with the knowledge of some senior managers. If found guilty, Melbourne University could face penalties of up to $630,000 per serious contravention and up to $63,000 per breach for the other allegations. The Federal Court in Melbourne has yet to set a date for the directions hearing.
In November 2022, the University of Melbourne apologised to about 15,000 current and former casual staff and promised to pay back $22 million in owed wages and salaries.
Lis Wang contributed to this article.