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Sonder 2022  •  04 May 2022  •  Student Life

The Casual Vagrancy

Research into the employment and working conditions of casual tutors at UTS has provided damning new insights into the university’s treatment of their academic staff following the COVID-19 pandemic. This article is the first instalment in an ongoing series by Vertigo.

By Joseph Hathaway-Wilson and Joey Chalita
The Casual Vagrancy

IN THE WAKE OF THEIR LEAVE

The date is the 19th of March, 2020. As the worldwide death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic ascends into the thousands, Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes a crucial call on the status of the country’s international borders. 

“Australia is closing its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents,” the media statement reads. “The entry ban takes effect from 9 p.m AEDT Friday, 20 March 2020, with exemptions only for Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family.”

For university staff, what follows over the next 18 months is nothing short of catastrophic. The consistent flow of international students onto campus is immediately stemmed, triggering a monumental loss of revenue.

At UTS, 500 jobs are lost over the 2020-21 period.

University administration has since declared that 370 of the 500 losses in question were ‘voluntary resignations’. However, Sarah Attfield, branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at
UTS, claims that this process may not have been as voluntary as the name of the procedure suggests.

“A lot of staff members felt that they didn't have a future at UTS, so they decided to take that separation package before there was going to be a potential wave of non-voluntary separation,” she says.

“For a lot of staff members, it was a case of jumping before they got pushed.”

Ms Attfield also says these resignations have increased the burden of work on the remaining staff.

“One result of the voluntary separations has been an increasing workload for the colleagues who have been left behind. In many cases, that work has not stopped. 

Redundancy doesn't mean that the work doesn't exist anymore, it means that the position is redundant. It's caused a lot of increased pressure and stress on the remaining people.”

There is, as always, a case for the defence. In a sit-down interview with Vertigo last January, Vice-Chancellor Andrew Parfitt highlighted the importance of upholding a pragmatic approach to the scenario.
“It is regrettable, but we have to have job losses to manage the finances,” he said.

It should also be noted that Ms Attfield had no intention of criticising the separation package offered to those who accepted voluntary resignations, stating that the payouts were “very generous”, costing the university “somewhere in the millions.”

In accordance with Clause 55.10 (i-iii) of the University of Technology Sydney Academic Staff Agreement 2018, any members of staff who undertake a voluntary resignation are entitled to: “Normal salary for six months of further employment, severance pay at the rate of two weeks' pay for each completed year of service (to a maximum of 52 weeks), and accumulated entitlements in the form of accrued annual leave and long service leave."


THE CASUAL DILEMMA

The situation evokes questions of job security for university staff in a post-pandemic era. When questioned on this point, Vice-Chancellor Parfitt implied that employment statistics were always likely to look more damning on paper.

“I am absolutely passionate about making sure that we support careers for our staff, but we’ve got a lot of diversity in the workforce,” he said.

“We’ve got people who work for us from industry who don’t want a full-time job with us. We’ve got students who work in labs demonstrating, marketing, and so forth. So, we’ll always have some diversity in that space of employment arrangements.”

The NTEU, however, had a drastically different outlook on this sentiment.

“There would be a very small minority of people who fall into that category,” Ms Attfield says.

“The NTEU doesn't have a problem with genuine, casual employment, because it's ad hoc; you might do a guest lecture here or there, or you might pick up something on the side now and again. That's what casual work should be. What casual work shouldn't be is for that continuing and ongoing work, which is what the majority of casuals here at UTS are doing.”

Sam* is a former tutor at UTS who agreed to speak to Vertigo about the work and employment conditions of casual workers in the tertiary education system.

“We are hired as casual staff, meaning our employment can cease during the semester, however the contract shows that we are engaging in a semester's amount of work,” they say.

According to Sam, the pressures of an unreasonable workload are compounded by the lack of formal procedure around the employment of casual tutors.

“We are never really brought into the broader university workforce, besides having an induction session when we join, if we are lucky,” they say.

“I will be teaching a number of separate subjects, being hired by separate subject coordinators, who I need to email a few weeks out from semester to check that I'll be teaching again that year.”

Sam says this informality can be attributed to both university administration as well as subject coordinators who make minimal effort to accommodate for casual tutors.

“I have never known subject coordinators to work with other subject coordinators to ensure that my classes compliment each other on the timetable. On the contrary, I lost a large amount of my projected yearly income because a number of classes changed to the same day. When I informed them that they clashed with other subjects, they simply wished me well and said it was nice to have met me.”

Sam’s words align with anecdotal reports of casual academics being hindered by work commitments without the benefit of paid research. In this situation, the subsequent lack of portfolio poses a major inconvenience when applying for jobs, which Sam claims are already informal and uncertain.

“I once had a friend tell me that they don't know how to get more teaching work because they were offered the class we were teaching in a pub one night,” they say.

As of March 2022, there is no recognised union for casual tertiary education staff specifically. 

According to the aforementioned academic enterprise agreement, the base rate used to calculate the casual academic hourly rate is $77,172. This is less than a Student Admin Officer role currently going at Sydney University that is advertised on Seek for $78,077.
 


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