(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Funding relief can’t come soon enough for university workers, who union officials say have already had their shifts cut and contracts rescinded across the education sector following the coronavirus outbreak, with some staff offered lesser-paying online roles instead. 

While the government plans to release a stimulus package this week, it’s expected casual employees — many of whom have not had a paycheck since November, the end of the university year — won’t directly benefit.

University staff hit the hardest 

Multiple staff members at Monash University in Victoria have had their contracts rescinded this week as the university deals with a drop in international students following the coronavirus.

Ben Eltham, president of Monash’s branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) told Crikey that casual and sessional staff — staff who aren’t on continuous contracts — had been impacted. 

“Staff have been hanging on for weeks because the word has been we don’t know, watch this space … Now, a lot of them have been told there’s no teaching.” Eltham said he’d seen contracts disappear from their HR system, while some staff on zero-hour contracts simply had no classes to teach. Crikey has seen an email advising a range of sessional contracts were not being processed.

Universities are facing an estimated $1.2 billion hit from the 65,800 international students at risk of cancelling their enrolment due to travel bans. In 2017, Monash University made $357.1 million from Chinese international students. 

Monash employed 15,823 staff in 2018, 11,531 who were on fixed-term and casual contracts (of the 8,833 staff who were full-time equivalent, 4,762 were on fixed-term and casual contracts). 

Most teaching staff at Monash are casuals or on rolling contracts, Eltham said, and many staff hadn’t been paid since the end of the academic year in November. Monash says around 28% of teaching & research Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) effort was fulfilled by teaching only sessionals in 2019. 

Eltham said he had seen reports of casual or sessional teachers being offered online roles at a fraction of their usual salary. 

“Monash has told full-time staff to work around the clock to move their courses online in time for the start of the semester, and sessionals hired to deliver online teaching across learning platforms. I’ve seen an email saying they’d be paid one-third of the [face-to-face teaching] rate.” 

Crikey has seen the email advising staff they would be paid under the Other Required Academic Activity for supporting online units, which pays staff $47.00 per hour (or $56.25 for staff with a PhD). It’s not clear what this role entails, though the email says it is not supposed to include teaching activities. 

In contrast, a one-hour lecture pays $197.81 for one hour of delivery and two hours of associated work. Under the new role, staff would receive $150.81 less per lecture, or $56.81 less per three hours of work under the new arrangement. 

Monash University rejected the union’s claims that this was a wage decrease, saying the rates were in line with the university’s EBA. 

“Monash has not rescinded any contracted offers of work due to the effects of COVID-19, nor have sessional staff been offered work at a lower rate of pay … While there will be changes in employment of sessional and casual staff due to the effects of COVID-19, we have increased expenditure on our flexible programs which should reduce the impact of lower student numbers on sessional and casual staff employment,” a spokesperson told Crikey.  

NTEU national president Alison Barnes said the casualisation of universities’ workforces has been a contentious issue for some time. Most universities have rates of casualisation over 40%, with even more staff on fixed-term contracts. 

“University management has shifted the risk to employees — this is on top of staff workload issues,” she said.

“Casuals face a difficult set of circumstances. With $10 billion ripped out of the sector in the last decade, this crisis exposes the problems of not providing people with secure employment,” she said.

Barnes said the union had written to Education Minister Dan Tehan asking for a support package for people who are precariously employed or who don’t have sick leave. 

A representative for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment told Crikey it has “no authority to be involved in industrial issues between staff and universities: universities are independent institutions responsible for managing their staff”.

Stimulus package light on details

The government’s forthcoming multi-billion-dollar stimulus package is expected to include tax incentives to help businesses with cash flow deductions for new investments, along with funding for infrastructure projects. 

But it seems workers are unlikely to receive any compensation for loss of work, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg saying there would be no “cash splash”. So while universities may get some form of a bailout, casual workers will likely remain waiting without a paycheck. 

Representatives from Treasury’s office refused to comment, pointing Crikey to comments made by the treasury secretary Steven Kennedy at Senate estimates.

“Fiscal support will be needed to accelerate the recovery of the economy, especially once the health and health management effects of COVID-19 begin to fade … the government is considering the shape and size of the fiscal policy response to COVID-19,” Kennedy said. 

Opposition calls for more

Workers affected can apply for Newstart — though there are concerns the virus may lead to an influx of claims, causing delays and putting pressure on the system. 

The Greens are pushing for a stimulus package to cover low-income workers affected, regardless of their contract, and for Newstart mutual obligation requirements — which include job searching and meeting with job service providers — to be wound back to limit the risk of contagion.

Greens leader Adam Bandt told Crikey, “coronavirus is already speeding towards us like a freight train, and there’s no time to delay reducing the risk to workers. The government should introduce [the stimulus] as soon as possible, as the longer they wait, the greater the problem may become”.

For now, the educators of Australia’s youth will have to queue for Newstart and hope their savings hold out until coronavirus blows over, and the stimulus kicks in.

Peter Fray

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