Tutors at some of Australia’s sandstone universities are being told to do a “poor job” and “skim read” student essays to meet impossible marking pay rates, as an ABC investigation reveals at least 10 tertiary institutions are involved in an underpayment scandal.
• Ten Australian universities are now facing the issue of worker underpayment
• RMIT has been taken to the Fair Work Commission over payrates that allowed tutors 10 minutes to mark a paper
• A former University of Queensland academic said staff were told to “skim read” assignments
• The tertiary education union fears underpayment of casual academic staff is widespread throughout the sector
Recently, it was revealed the University of Melbourne, University of New South Wales and Macquarie University were repaying staff who were underpaid, while the University of Western Australia (UWA) was auditing its pay rates.
Now, the ABC has learned of other disputes over underpayment at the University of Queensland (UQ), University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Murdoch University where in Western Australia some students have been told marking rates are so low, not all assessments will be graded.
RMIT has been taken to the Fair Work Commission by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) over new marking rates that limit the amount of time to mark an essay and provide feedback to just 10 minutes per paper, half the previous allocation.
Ten of Australia’s 39 public universities are now repaying money, undertaking audits or in dispute with casual staff who believe the sector is being propped up by an “underclass” of workers.
1. University of Melbourne
3. Macquarie University
5. University of Sydney
8. Murdoch University
10. Monash University
Elysse Fenton, a former UQ course coordinator, said universities were “run on exploited labour”.
“It’s really a miracle that we haven’t had a huge crisis in student experiences or teaching quality yet in universities,” she said.
Until this semester, Dr Fenton was a course coordinator in the School of Political Science and International Affairs at UQ.
She had worked for the elite G8 university for 13 years, but for the last 18 months she has been logging the number of unpaid hours.
The unpaid hours were racked up due to “impossible” marking rates for essays and time spent assisting students.
“Some teaching staff have been instructed to do a poor job, I suppose, because there is widespread acknowledgment that these [marking] rates are inaccurate,” Dr Fenton said.
“I have heard colleagues being told to skim read students’ assignments or to just read the introduction and the conclusion of an essay.”
Dr Fenton said most casual staff did not take that advice and did extra unpaid work to ensure a good university experience for students.
She estimated that commitment meant she was owed $28,000 in unpaid wages from UQ, which is about half of her total earnings during the 18-month period.
The ABC has seen evidence Dr Fenton has been underpaid for moving courses online at the height of the pandemic – a directive issued to all casual staff via an internal memo.
“It was quite shocking, but in a way, it wasn’t shocking because it was really business as usual,” she said.
“It was upsetting and it was frustrating.”
Dr Fenton was one of thousands of casual staff quietly let go as the pandemic hit university revenues.
In a statement, UQ said it had “not seen a systemic issue with underpayment, but where errors occur the university is happy for them to be brought to attention so they can be rectified as quickly as possible”.
Melbourne’s RMIT was taken to the Fair Work Commission after missing its own deadline to respond to underpayment allegations.
The university’s School of Management reduced the number of hours tutors could claim for marking and the union estimated some staff could have had their pay reduced by $6,000 a semester.
“There just simply isn’t enough time to do all the work that’s necessary to achieve those academic standards,” tutor and union organiser Karen Douglas, a former RMIT staff member, said.
She estimated she was owed $1,000 from semester one, which would put her at the lower end of claims against the university.
The NTEU alleged these marking rates could be in place across a number of other RMIT faculties.
“This sort of wage theft is not just what we see in the news like George Calombaris and so on. We’re talking about highly prized intellectual leaders in our economy,” NTEU Victorian assistant secretary Sarah Roberts said.
In a statement, RMIT said it was negotiating with the union.
“Should any sessional staff members have an issue regarding their time allocations, we are happy to discuss the issue further,” the spokesperson said.
Monash University is considered Australia’s biggest university because it has the most students.
The ABC has seen evidence of written disputes between casual staff and management at Monash University, as well as the faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UTS, and the Mathematics and Statistics faculty at Murdoch University.
These marking rates may not breach enterprise bargaining agreements, but staff would like an independent audit saying they are forced to choose between being paid and doing the right thing by students.
At Murdoch University in Western Australia, students in one course have been told parts of some work will no longer be marked.
Murdoch University said it was “disappointed” student work would not be marked, but would rectify the situation and claimed there was no systemic underpayment.
The NTEU has requested an investigation of the payroll situation for casual employees at UTS, however, the university initially denied it had received any correspondence and refused to comment.
It later sought to distance itself from other institutions that have made large back-payments to staff, and said: “UTS has not had any issue raised formally by either a staff member or the NTEU in relation to underpayment of the kind that has been reported at the universities of Sydney or Melbourne.”
Monash University said it carried out regular audits, but did not have a current formal claim of underpayment from any staff.
The Fair Work Ombudsman is investigating a number of schools including three of Australia’s elite group of eight research universities.
Late last week, senator Mehreen Faruqi made a formal request for University of Melbourne, UNSW, University of Sydney, Macquarie University and the University of WA to appear before a Senate inquiry into wage underpayment.
The ombudsman said it would like to hear from staff at other universities and the NTEU has set up a national hotline.
“We’re looking to gather evidence from across the sector to launch a wave of class actions,” NTEU national president Alison Barnes said.
“If this can happen at 10 campuses, we’re pretty sure it’s happening across the sector.”