Australian Higher Education Industry Association chief executive Craig Laughton said universities had responded to the problem of underpayment and there had been “significant improvements”. The association is working with the Ombudsman to implement a series of guidelines to help the sector identify, correct, and have continuous monitoring of underpayment problems.
“There is no vice chancellor that I have spoken with who is not taking this as an important issue for the university. They don’t want to underpay anybody,” Laughton said.
“There are a multitude of reasons why underpayments have occurred. And it’s just not that universities are trying to take advantage of some of the least protected workers in the system.”
He said he would be amazed if underpayment risks were not now on the risk register of all universities, which were identifying underpayments, reimbursing staff and improving systems and processes to prevent future problems.
He blamed “very complex” corporate agreements for some confusion with underpayments, saying basic definitions need to be clear and modernized so that “you don’t need a PhD” to interpret payments.
“There is no silver bullet here,” he said.
The national president of the National Union for Tertiary Education, Alison Barnes, said underpay was a symptom of insecure work, which was rife in the sector and harmed not only those without secure employment, but also students.
“We have also campaigned for many years on issues like governance. Universities are increasingly being run as private sector organizations rather than public sector organizations that should be operating in the public good,” Barnes said.
“They’ve had plenty of time to fix their payroll systems. It shouldn’t take five years… 10 years to fix the payroll systems, so it’s absolutely appalling.”
Barnes said it was “ridiculous” to say the company agreements were too complicated, since they were agreed upon by both management and unions and university management should train staff on how their company agreements work.
A spokesman for the University of Melbourne said the chancellor had formally apologized for the underpayments and reaffirmed the university’s determination to ensure it did not happen again. He has worked to remediate current and former staff regarding rights under the 2013 and 2018 company agreements. He has also introduced improvements to systems and payroll, extra-mandatory training for occasional managers, and new roles to support hiring and management occasional staff.
The Australian Universities Agreement Panel will report to the Minister for Education with an interim report on priority actions in June. The final report must be submitted in December 2023.
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