Deakin University admits underpaying staff, investigating extent of problem

Deakin University has admitted wage theft in its arts and education faculties, but the tertiary education union says theft is more widespread and it “may be forced” to take the matter to the Federal Court.

Deakin vice-chancellor Iain Martin emailed staff on Wednesday saying the university had underpaid casual academics at the two schools, through a “misapplication of the valuation formulas used to calculate the pay of academic staff at session”.

“Inadvertent underpayment of some sessional academics” has been identified and disclosed by the university, the vice-chancellor said.

“This shouldn’t have happened.”

The disparity comes from hourly versus per-card payments.

The university has brought in law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth and financial services giant Deloitte to review relevant payment practices.

The review focused on schools of communications and creative arts, and on the humanities and social sciences within those arts and education faculties.

“We are committed to expanding this review to determine whether there are other affected academic staff in other areas of the University,” Professor Martin writes in the email.

The National Tertiary Education Union says underpayments “could exceed” $10 million, and believes there is evidence of underpayments in other schools, not just arts and education.

The union wants larger refunds and “may be forced to take action in the Federal Court” if management does not make a full admission.

“Deakin management’s refusal to admit a clear case of wage theft for two whole years is a disgrace,” said Sarah Roberts, secretary of the Victorian union.

“Unfortunately, Deakin has only confessed to stealing wages at two schools, but we will not rest until this systematic scandal is fully exposed and every penny owed is repaid,” he said.

The union argues that paying per task assigned – a piece rate – versus an hourly rate, better reflects the time needed to properly evaluate assessments.

“As late as February this year, management was still insisting that the piece rate wage used for bareback workers did not exist, despite staff presenting rock-solid evidence,” Ms Robert said.

The union says it has launched a dispute with Deakin over “systemic” underpayments, and the university has reported underpayments in arts and education schools to the Fair Work Ombudsman.

Staff at universities in Melbourne, Sydney, Wollongong, Queensland and Tasmania, UNSW and Monash University have staff variously underpaid for casual work or retiring over the past seven years.

“It is absolutely disgraceful that just a day after the University of Queensland admitted stealing $8 million, Deakin has been added to the ever-growing list of university salary thieves,” Alison Barnes, president of the National Tertiary Education Union.

The union’s wage theft report, released last year, found Australian higher education workers were underpaid by $83.4 million over the past three years.

“We need to end the precarious employment crisis and implement a proper governance system if we are serious about having the universities Australia deserves,” Dr Barnes said.

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