University of Melbourne casuals confront Arts dean over unpaid work

Casuals occupy office of University of Melbourne Arts dean
Casuals occupy the office of the University of Melbourne Arts dean. Photo: Annette Herrera

It is an open secret that Australian universities are underpaying casual academics. Often earning less than $30,000 a year, casuals make up 70% of undergraduate teaching staff in some university schools.

At the University of Melbourne, more than 72% of staff are casual or on a fixed-term contract.

However, casuals and their allies are fighting back by forming union member-led groups such as the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Casuals Network, with the support of union official.

By supporting grassroots campaigning and increased union power among rank-and-file members, the NTEU Victoria Division and NTEU University of Melbourne Branch Committee have aided member's efforts.

More than 100 casual and permanent staff members and students gathered at the University of Melbourne on November 1 to deliver a petition to Faculty of Arts dean Russell Goulbourne calling on the faculty to pay casual staff for lecture attendance.

Currently, some 200 arts tutors are not being paid for lectures they attend. Instead, in some cases, they are being actively discouraged from doing so.

This is despite the university’s own website stating that tutorials are held, in part, to review lecture content. Tutors feel compelled to attend lectures to conduct tutorials properly, but faculty management would prefer tutors turn up less prepared than students.

NTEU division secretary Dr Mel Slee told the rally that while 16 university management executives are making more than a combined $10 million and students are paying more than $50,000 for degrees, 4000 staff members are having to work 2-3 casual teaching jobs to make ends meet.  

NTEU activist and casual academic Geraldine Fela noted that the university paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure silver sponsor status at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC), where police brutally beat peaceful protesters, yet it is not willing to pay casual staff for the hours they have worked.

Following the rally, protesters marched to the dean’s office. When Goulbourne refused to accept the petition, staff and students occupied the office, chanting “Where’s the dean?”

Domestic and international students, along with casual and permanent staff, took turns to speak out against casualisation.

They also reflected on the growing solidarity that has emerged between students and rank-and-file NTEU members on issues such as climate justice, the fight against transphobia and the recent police violence many staff and students experienced at Blockade IMARC.

The action helped build stronger connections between the two groups in their fight against the neoliberal agenda of university management that prioritises profits above student needs and staff job security.

Although the dean never turned up, protesters vowed to return louder and stronger.

A further protest was organised on November 8.

[Annette Herrera is an NTEU activist in Melbourne.]

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