Wage theft in higher education, and how to stop it

With news in the past fortnight that UNSW has set aside $36 million in its annual budget to fund potential backpay claims by casual staff, the issue of widespread wage theft at Australia’s universities is once again in the spotlight.

As Overland readers would know, the systematic underpayment of precarious workers is just one of many issues facing Australia’s embattled tertiary education sector. In the wake of Covid-19 and the Liberal government’s refusal to extend JobKeeper to university employees, thousands of staff have lost their jobs, entire departments are on the chopping block, federal funding has been slashed, and some student fees are rising. However, as is often the case in situations of crisis, the pandemic has also brought to light structural problems that have beset Australian universities for decades. The most egregious of these is perhaps the sector’s overreliance on cheap and super-exploited casual labour. 

Casuals, whether in their own organisations or through the NTEU, have long contested this state of affairs, albeit with little success. Recently, however, the tide has begun to turn, beginning with last year’s spectacular win by casuals at the University of Melbourne of millions of dollars in backpay. Currently, over a quarter of Australia’s thirty-nine public universities are repaying money, undertaking audits, or in dispute with their casuals over unpaid wages. With at least 17,000 fewer jobs in the sector than at the start of 2019, more casuals than ever are abandoning the idea that precarious work is a stepping stone to a secure position. Instead, they are revolting against a system that has always used their passion for education and desire for ongoing work as traps to exploit them. Where will their struggle lead, and what challenges stand in their way?    

Before addressing these questions, it’s worth reminding readers of just how serious the underpayment of casual staff in the university sector is. Take my home institution of the University of Sydney. For the past year, with comrades from the University of Sydney Casuals Network and the NTEU, I have been involved in a careful audit of casual academics’ working practices, chiefly in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. The results of our semester-long audit, unprecedented in its level of detail, have now been published in ‘The Tip of the Iceberg: A Report into Wage Theft and Underpayment of Casual Employees at the University of Sydney’. It makes for disturbing reading. 

Of the twenty-nine casuals who participated and tracked each hour they worked – before comparing these hours to those they were actually paid for – the report found that 90 per cent were forced to perform unpaid work, with participants doing on average almost half an hour extra work for every hour they were given in their contract. We found that the mean underpayment was $4,130 per person, while one of our participants was underpaid a staggering $19,065 for a single semester’s work. Our report also shed light on where and how underpayment occurs. It showed that casuals are forced to work double the amount of time to prepare lectures and tutorials than they are paid for, while for every hour of paid marking work they do, casuals work an extra half hour. Interestingly, the rate of underpayment was highest in the area of administrative work, which includes tasks such as attending meetings, consulting with students, replying to students’ and colleagues’ emails, processing extension requests, managing an eLearning site, completing online training modules, and filling in timesheets. The audit participants did an average of almost five times the amount of administrative work as they were paid for, amounting to a total of $38,970 of unpaid wages in one semester, or an average of $1,771 per person. 

It would be tempting to dismiss our report on the grounds that only twenty-nine of the University of Sydney’s over 7,000 casual staff took part. However, the results reflect other relevant data from the sector. The NTEU’s 2020 report Unlawful Underpayment of Employees’ Remuneration found that of the 2,932 casual academics who responded to the Union’s survey, 64 per cent said that they were underpaid. Also released last year, two reports by our fellow Casuals Networks at UNSW and Monash University showed that 42 per cent and 64 per cent of casuals respectively did unpaid work. Closer to home, a 2019 survey of permanent staff at the University of Sydney found that 84 per cent of staff spent double the amount of time than they were given to prepare lectures and tutorials – just like their casual colleagues. Since all of these reports were structured as simple question and answer surveys, our report suggests that when casuals keep a detailed log of their work, they tend to find that the amount of unpaid work they perform is higher than they might otherwise have thought. 

When university managers are confronted with direct evidence of underpayment, they usually respond in one of three ways.

Middle managers say that these exploitative contracts are the best they can offer given current budgetary constraints. Higher level managers prefer the argument that casuals should not work beyond the hours they are given, no matter the effect on the quality of work performed. When it comes to university leaders like Professor Stephen Garton, acting Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney, the go-to response is to imply that casuals who work more than their contracted hours are likely incompetent. In the face of casuals who carefully document their underpayment, managers therefore respond by admitting that their employment practices are exploitative, by demanding that casuals reduce the quality of their students’ education, or by publicly displaying their contempt for their most vulnerable yet no less essential employees.   

How should the NTEU and casuals’ own organisations respond to this situation?

Over the next year, Enterprise Agreements at Australia’s universities will expire, and staff will enter into bargaining with management. As a bare minimum, the NTEU must fight for casuals to be paid for all hours worked and to have a guaranteed right to convert to ongoing positions. Casuals are trained professionals: they should be able to bill for the hours they deem necessary to complete their work. Many casuals are also already working in a de facto ongoing fashion: the position they hold should reflect this reality.

Of course, university management will vigorously resist such demands, for – if successful – they will cause a system-shattering shift away from management’s priorities of constructing flashy buildings, paying executives millions of dollars and outsourcing key university roles, and towards the interests of those who do the core work of educating students. But what else is a tertiary education union for? 

For their part, casuals must stay active and vigilant on multiple fronts. Some universities have already seen the writing on the wall and are quietly paying back their casual staff. Others are making plans to funnel them into fixed-term or ongoing fractional positions. After years of precarity, the promise of more stable work will appeal to many casuals. However, as research by the NTEU shows, unrealistic workload policies mean that these continuing positions are almost as exploitative as casual work itself. If we don’t fight for quality full-time jobs now, then the few of us able to maintain a foothold in the sector will risk finding ourselves stepping from one circle of hell into another. 

Likewise, claiming backpay should be just as much about building casuals’ organising power to construct a better university as they are about redressing an historical injustice. This last point is crucial as the NTEU gears up for potential strike action in defence of workers’ demands. The NTEU is unique among unions in that the majority of its members are, for casuals, their bosses. Permanent academic staff are those who most often hire casuals semester after semester. This difference in position means that solidarity between these two categories of workers is a task, not a given.

Crucially, solidarity requires that permanent staff abandon everything that makes them a boss and actualise what gives them power as workers. The truth is that for most permanent staff who hire casuals, their experience of being a boss is a mixture of impotence and guilt. In contrast to this, an alliance with precarious staff gives them a chance at courage and workers’ power. The success of casuals’ own organisations such as ‘Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers’, or the casuals networks at Griffith University, La Trobe University, Macquarie University, Melbourne University, Monash University, RMIT, the University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales, or the University of Sydney should inspire permanent staff to choose the latter.

As its title indicates, our report shows only the tip of the iceberg of wage theft at Australia’s universities. It also shows, hopefully, that its authors and participants are only the tip of the iceberg of those ready to fight against the underpayment of casual staff.  While universities’ reliance on casuals has meant decades of suffering for these precarious workers, it has also produced a population of workers who are at once crucial to the ongoing running of the university but have no interest in preserving its contemporary form. If there is anything to salvage from the wreckage of casualisation, it is the hope to be derived from casuals’ own practices. Through their dedication to students and the fight for a better university, casuals show, day after day, that it is possible to commit to education – even if it doesn’t offer institutional prestige or the comforts enjoyed by bourgeois academics and managers. 

Fighting alongside casuals is therefore also a chance at a true education.


If you have worked as a casual in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney in the last six years, you are invited to join NTEU and the Casuals Networks’ collective backpay claim. Click here to sign up.

Robert Boncardo

Robert Boncardo is a sessional tutor in the International and Global Studies Program at the University of Sydney. He is a member of the NTEU branch committee at the University of Sydney and of the USyd Casuals Network. He is the author of Mallarmé and the Politics of Literature: Sartre, Kristeva, Badiou, Rancière (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), and with Christian R. Gelder of Mallarmé: Rancière, Milner, Badiou (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). He has translated Pierre-François Moreau’s Experience and Eternity in Spinoza (Edinburgh University Press, 2021), and has published articles on modern French politics and poetry.

More by Robert Boncardo ›

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  1. Fantastic article Robert!

    You’ve really hit the nail on the head, glad you mentioned the various levels of Management. They’re all part of the problem… Hopefully now staff (especially Union members) will cease to join ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ etc committees with upper managers, realising it’s a sham and that they’re selling out their fellow workers, especially the most vulnerable.

    Your idea of a united front is a good one, but having been a professional staff member in insecure work I fear most Managers won’t be up for it!

    Maybe the academic managers will be though… Although, I always found it amusing how a department could be so “progressive” on some topics (often ones that the outside world cares little for), but so reactionary on the topic of worker’s rights. Food for thought about their politics…

  2. Some Food For Dave’s Thoughts.

    Mes amies,
    I know this going to sound horribly delightful, but i often dream about eating the permanent staff above me, of boiling them in a big pot, and stuffing them with some delicious Spanish broccoli, and serving them up al Dante, perhaps accompanied with some sweet beetroots sautéed in a little butter and white wine?

    Je sais que c’est un fantasme, but the more I think upon this scheme, the more reasonable it appears to me. Rational ideas like united fronts and logical appeals to the progressive politics of the “bosses” are just that: ideas and ideals, rainbow piglets! La tourterelle ne chantera pas pour la grenouille taureau!

    And this is why i dream. Call me insane, but i cannot help what i dream. I cannot help wanting to eat my employers. They just look so juicy and delicious looking. Oh, look! Here come one now!

    Bon appetit,

    Drone Boy.

  3. Thankyou for your article. I had a meeting with my boss not long ago, who told me I would not be paid for extra work that I’m expected to do because I’m a casual. I was read a list of ways i could improve the student experience by spending extra unpaid time marking and running extra classes I’d not be paid for. I already spend unpaid hours preparing for class, consulting with students, doing administration work, etc. Running a class i do the same work as permanent staff but I’m “just a casual” so it’s “policy” that i cannot be paid for certain “essential tasks”. In a world where casuals are easily replaced, there is no incentive for change. If i speak up i might as well say goodbye to academic employment. But then again, how is it right that i feel like a troublemaker for asking to be paid proportionately to the hours i work? I wonder how students would react when they learn that with all the fees they are paying, their teachers are being severely underpaid? With close to 70% of university staff in Australia being casual, underpayment is no accident, it’s a business model that exploits the goodwill of those who know better than to throw students under the bus.

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