In an expanding investigation, Fair Work Ombudsman Sarah Parker is looking into poor management and governance practices, including underpayment of wages, at more than a dozen universities and expects to take “high-level enforcement action against a number of universities this financial year”.
The FWO is carrying on with the investigation even though universities have already publicly agreed to return nearly $50m of unpaid wages owed to casual staff.
The National Tertiary Education Union, which spearheaded the fight to make universities pay casuals for unpaid work, says it believes more is owed. “The problem is a systemic one in the higher education sector,” said NTEU Victorian assistant secretary Sarah Roberts.
The FWO’s sweeping statement follows her announcement on Thursday that she was taking the University of Melbourne to the Federal Court over separate allegations that it coerced and took adverse action against two casually employed academics to stop them claiming payment for work they were required to perform beyond contracted hours.
Documents filed with the court allege that the supervisor of the two academics, from the university’s Graduate School of Education, threatened in August 2020 not to re-employ the pair if they claimed for such work. One of the academics was not offered any further casual teaching contracts, the ombudsman alleges.
In response, the University of Melbourne said it was “looking at the specific allegations very carefully and once it has considered them, will respond through relevant court processes”.
‘The university is currently working to identify any practices that are inconsistent with our obligations, and doing everything we can to make full remediation and ensure we fully comply,” it said.
Last year, University of Melbourne vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell apologised to casual staff for underpayments and said $9.5m had been repaid.
Ms Parker said on Thursday her office was conducting investigations into 11 named universities and “making inquiries into or investigating several other universities which have not yet been publicly named”.
“Our investigations are often finding trends of poor governance and management oversight, and a lack of centralised human resources functions and investment in payroll and time-recording systems,” she said.
She named the 11 as the universities of Tasmania, Melbourne, New England, NSW, Newcastle and Sydney, as well as La Trobe, Monash, RMIT, UTS and Charles Darwin.
She said she was working to ensure any underpayments to staff by universities were “rectified as quickly at possible”.
The NTEU said at least 21 of 40 universities had been implicated in underpaying their staff, with the underpayments mainly affecting casual employees.
So far, $25.25m has been repaid, with more promised.
The union said underpayment of casual staff was due to various reasons, including paying academics to mark assessments as piece work rather than by time spent; not paying tutors for “office hours” in which they were required to be available to students; and reclassifying work so it could be paid at a cheaper rate