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Higher education, a sector in crisis and what can be done: the case of Melbourne University (by Professor Joo-Cheong Tham)

13th May, 2022

This latest guest contribution on the Labour Law Down Under Blog is by Professor Joo-Cheong Tham of Melbourne Law School. It is also being published in the National Tertiary Education Union’s publication “Sentry” (2022 federal election edition). Professor Tham is also NTEU National Councillor; Convenor of Victorian Division’s Work Health and Safety Working Group; and Member, Academic Freedom Working Group.

A crisis holds up a mirror to society.

In the case of the Australian higher education sector, the pandemic has witnessed a federal government vandalising tertiary institutions by excluding them from JobKeeper, a decision responsible for the ‘avoidable catastrophe’ of thousands of job losses; it has exposed the weakness of university leadership unable to muster significant community opposition to such destructiveness, let alone prevent it.

In many universities, management responses of ‘more restructuring, more job losses’ have laid bare a broken operating model based on insecurity, inequity and flawed governance.

The University of Melbourne is a case on point.

Melbourne University’s broken operating model


As with many other universities, employment insecurity is a deliberate workforce strategy of Melbourne University. In May 2021, nearly three quarters of its academic workforce and nearly half of professional staff were in insecure employment (casual and fixed-term employment).

Frequent organisational restructures produce both employment and job insecurity. Professional staff have borne the brunt of the alphabet soup of restructures: PSR (Professional Services Redesign); PRP (Pandemic Reset Program); BIP (Business Improvement Program); RDM (Responsible Division Management). Even when professional staff keep their jobs, there is little assurance that their roles will not be altered against their volition through restructuring.

One would be hard-pressed to find staff who would say that these restructures have produced genuine improvements. In many instances, redundancies in restructuring abolished the jobs but left the work remaining to be done. Add to this pandemic workload creep.

Contrary to the academic mission of the University, education and student learning are devalued when the bulk of teaching is done by insecure workers. The teaching-research nexus is ruptured when casual academics are not paid to undertake research.


As with other universities, systematic wage theft has become part of the business model of Melbourne University, with millions of dollars in stolen wages taken from more than 1000 of its casual academics.

Insecurity of casual employment is the key vector of exploitation that enables management to expect casuals to work unpaid hours and inhibits casuals from complaining about unpaid work for fear they will not be offered any more work.

As the current Vice-Chancellor says, wage theft from casual academics ‘represent(s) a systemic failure of respect from this institution for those valued, indeed vital, employees’. This lack of respect is fuelled by stark inequality: the Vice-Chancellor earns an official remuneration package of just over $1.5 million per annum, nearly 20 times the annual salary of the lowest academic classification and nearly 30 times that of the lowest professional staff classification under the Enterprise Agreement. In fact, the Vice-Chancellor’s remuneration exceeds that of the Victorian Premier and the Prime Minister to the factor of three.

Insecurity also enables abusive behaviour such as bullying and sexual harassment: consider the invidious position of a casual academic who has been sexually harassed by a senior academic who will decide whether she is offered teaching in the next semester.

Underlying these dynamics of insecurity and inequity is the prioritisation of buildings over staff – what has been characterised as an ‘edifice complex’. The former Vice-Chancellor said ‘you invest it [money] in things that will matter into the future . . . What you don’t do [is] load up the institution with expensive permanent staff, because you know that later this will be a significant problem’.

Flawed governance through ‘top-down’ management

Insecurity and inequity are bound up with the University’s governance structures. Both are fundamentally connected to a ‘top-down’ management approach which concentrates power over major decisions in a handful of offices. We see this in the various restructures where rituals of futility badged as consultation lend a veneer of legitimacy to a fait accompli.

Underpinning this approach is managerialism, an ideology anchored in the precept, ‘senior management knows best’. It is an ideology that calls for a high concentration of decision-making power, fostering a senior management class that views itself as the fount of wisdom. It is an ideology that has little regard for the knowledge and expertise of staff and is comfortable in opaque processes (why the need for accountability if senior management is always right?).

‘Top-down’ mismanagement

The broken operating model is ultimately a formula for mismanagement, wasting the talent and intelligence of staff. If given meaningful voice and security, staff would be motivated and empowered to more fully advance the academic missions of universities through their wisdom and energy, and blunders made due to insufficient “on the ground” knowledge could be avoided.

Unsurprisingly, there is a crisis of trust in senior management.

The broken operating model is also implicated in the crisis of public legitimacy enveloping the university sector. Wage theft and insecurity at the core of their universities’ operating models have seen senior management hauled over the coals in parliamentary inquiries. The salaries of Vice-Chancellors appear to have been instrumental in the federal government’s decision to exclude universities from JobKeeper. A New South Wales Parliamentary report has said that ‘[t]he current system that sees University Vice Chancellors paid 25 or thirty times more than many of the people undertaking the core work of universities must be reviewed and the failure to do this by the governing bodies of universities is evidence of a failure of leadership’.

Bargaining for a new social contract

The opportunity presented by this crisis should be seized. It calls for a movement for change led by staff, one animated by a vision of the universities true to their ideals.

This movement for change has already begun. It lives in the significant resistance by staff to senior management’s handling of the pandemic; it flourishes in NTEU’s wage theft and decasualisation campaigns. At Melbourne University, it continues this year when the NTEU branch bargains with senior management for a new enterprise agreement.

What is being sought is a social contract in recognition of the centrality of staff to the University’s mission, community and identity as a public institution. It is a social contract because it seeks legally enforceable standards which staff can rely upon, not least because they govern the powers of management. It is a social contract as it integrates the University’s academic mission with a foundational commitment to staff through three inter-locking pillars (security; equity; good governance) (draft log of claims and extended analysis accompanying available here).

From the standpoint of ‘top-down’ mismanagement and the broken operating model, the draft log is clearly revolutionary – deliberately so. But from the standpoint of Melbourne University’s academic mission, dignity and respect for staff and indeed, good management, the agenda advanced by the draft log seeks to reclaim the ideals of the University.

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