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Open letter addresses ‘crisis of working conditions’ at Melbourne Law School

An open letter has been penned to the University of Melbourne Law School following reports of exhausted and underpaid staff and “poor working conditions”, which aren’t meeting union standards. 

user iconLauren Croft 03 May 2023 Big Law
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Sent by Professor Katy Barnett on behalf of a number of professors, lecturers and other staff, the letter was signed by over 100 staff members of the Melbourne Law School and relates to bargaining claims by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) — and the university’s “lack of meaningful engagement” with those claims.

On Friday (28 April), the open letter was sent to the vice-chancellor, the provost and the deputy vice-chancellor (people and community) of Melbourne University Law School, which Ms Barnett confirmed to Lawyers Weekly this week.

Those who signed the letter are academics and professional staff at Melbourne Law School of varying tenures, some of which are retired and not all of which are union members.


The letter expresses concern that the university management’s position in union bargaining reflects a “crisis of trust in senior management” and is, therefore, detrimental to the working culture at the university.  

The NTEU is campaigning for better working conditions in universities across Australia with key enterprise bargaining claims, including “continuing employment” as the norm with an 80 per cent target, effective workload and working hours clauses, restrictions on restructures, a fair pay rise and improved access to flexible working arrangements for professional staff.

According to the letter, the university has said no to all but one of these claims: a fair pay rise — but in this instance is yet to fully commit to pay increases under the enterprise agreement. 

This, the letter stated, reflects a “failure to address the crisis of working conditions” at Melbourne Law School.

“We have witnessed and, in many cases, directly experienced the profound suffering resulting from job insecurity through casual and fixed-term employment; and observed the many ways in which such employment undermines the academic mission of the university,” the letter read.

“In our experience, it is not uncommon for ongoing work to be subject to insecure employment; for long-serving colleagues to be subject to rolling contracts and the stress of having to regularly re-apply for their jobs; and for job insecurity to damage the quality of teaching and research. It is no surprise that many of our casual colleagues have suffered from wage theft; as the Fair Work Ombudsman has emphasised, insecure work is a clear contributor to underpayment.”

This comes after the Fair Work Ombudsman commenced legal action against the university in February this year, following allegations that 14 staff were underpaid a total of "$154,424 between February 2017 and December 2019.

In that claim, the university was accused of failing to pay the casual academics for all hours of marking work required, instead paying staff on varying benchmarks, resulting in underpayments.

In a statement at the time, NTEU Victoria division assistant secretary Professor Joo-Cheong Tham welcomed the legal action. 

“The allegations highlight how Melbourne University has become the wage theft capital of the university sector through its corporate culture and the actions of senior leadership,” he said.

“It illustrates how the insecure workforce approach of the university systematically results in exploitation and illegality. It is high time for the university to overhaul its employment model, as the provost has committed to do, and establish job security as a key priority through targets for continuing employment in its enterprise agreement.”

This came after the NTEU referred the University of Melbourne to the Fair Work Commission in March 2022 over the underpayment of casual academic staff, which the university reportedly abruptly stopped paying PhD rates to in March 2021.

Now, over two years later, the staff who wrote the open letter requested a fair pay rise in line with inflation.

“Given the rising living costs and interest rates, many of us are under financial stress. The university must do more than investing in buildings, marketing campaigns, consultants, and senior managers,” the open letter stated.

“It must also invest in its staff. By investing in the security and health of the people who teach and support help students, it also invests in its students. We believe that the university has lost sight of the fact that one of its core roles is to teach students at as high a standard as possible.”

Additionally, the letter implored the university to improve hybrid working arrangements for staff and enact effective workload and working hours clauses, as staff at the university reportedly work “well in excess of 50 hours per week”, with many being fatigued and dispirited.

“Our workload has become crushing; some employees are ‘quiet quitting’ (refusing to do as much work as they did before); others are leaving, either by going part-time or leaving altogether. Some of us have become ill because of the demands that have been placed upon us. It is simply not sustainable to continue in this way.  

“In our view, the NTEU’s key claims are eminently reasonable and provide effective ways to address the poor working conditions at this university. We implore you to reconsider the rejection of the NTEU’s key bargaining claims and to progress instead to meaningfully meeting these claims,” the letter stated.  

“Staff are the backbone of this university.”

Lawyers Weekly contacted the University of Melbourne Law School for a statement and a spokesperson provided the following response:

"We are working collaboratively and constructively with the unions to reach a new enterprise agreement that is fair to all, recognises the value and contribution that all staff members make to our institution, and one that positions the University for long-term sustainability and success," they said. 

"We are actively engaging with staff as well as with their representatives and inviting feedback on the University’s proposed enterprise agreement provisions."