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Sydney University admits staff underpayment of almost $9million

This makes Sydney University the fourth G08 university that needs to repay staff.

Sydney University has today admitted to underpaying staff with around $8.8million set to be repaid. Most of those affected by the underpayments are casual employees.

The University has attributed the underpayment to ‘deficient processes’ and ‘failings’ in the payroll system, though the specific details of the errors were not clarified. 

In an email sent to staff this afternoon, Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence explained that the University had engaged Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) to conduct an investigation into the quantum of underpayment and the specific affected staff. 

PWC also assisted in a preliminary review which first identified systematic underpayment at the University, following reports of wage theft at other institutions. 

This makes Sydney University the fourth Group of Eight university to be repaying staff following instances of wage theft, with instances at the University of Melbourne and the University of New South Wales. The University of Western Australia is also currently undergoing a review in relation to a similar claim.

As a result, the Fair Work Ombudsman will be conducting an investigation into the University.

The President of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Alison Barnes has attributed the recent wage theft scandals on campuses to casual and insecure employment.

Addressing today’s news, Dr Barnes said: “A rich institution like Sydney University really has no excuse for wage theft. In the boom years it has sucked in the student fees while simultaneously underpaying staff. This is repugnant and unacceptable.”

“Universities never seem to make mistakes when it comes to paying exorbitant salaries to managers, like the $1.6 million paid to Michael Spence.”

“We are now in a situation where hundreds of casual staff across the university have had hours reduced or cut completely in an attempt to save the university approximately $10 million this year, with devastating impacts on their livelihoods and careers. It now looks like those savings will go towards rectifying the underpayment of other casual staff through an almighty management failure,” Kurt Iveson, the USyd Branch President of the NTEU, also told Honi.

When asked for comment, a USyd spokesperson said: “We deeply regret that errors have occurred regarding payment of employee entitlements, and are working to understand and rectify the problems as swiftly as possible.”

“Since the initial review was completed, we have already put in place a number of system and behavioural improvements including around exception reporting, the establishment of a project to deliver system notifications to managers regarding timesheets, and further guidance to managers and staff on entitlements provided by the Enterprise Agreement to mitigate any potential ongoing issues.”

Last month, a survey conducted by the USyd Casuals Network revealed underpayment of casual staff in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS), which had been exacerbated by the pandemic. The report showed that casuals reported an average of 50 unpaid hours of work during semester one this year.

A spokesperson for the Casuals Network told Honi: “The extent of wage theft at universities would make George Colambaris blush.”

“While University management will want to be given credit for “proactively initiat[ing] a review, this ignores the fact that staff and unions have been raising issues of systemic underpayment of both professional and academic staff for years.”

“Instead of pointing to particularities of the timesheet and payroll system, management needs to admit they are culpable in the exploitation of their staff, and especially casualised workers.”

More to come.

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