"We are not asking for the world": Why staff at the University of Melbourne are on strike


“We’re not asking for the world, we're not asking for a complete revolution for how the University is run straight away, we're asking them to work with us.” — Leonard, University of Melbourne teacher.


In October 2021, the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) for the University of Melbourne expired and has yet to be renewed. An EBA is a legally binding agreement which outlines staff working conditions, wages and pay for working hours. The lack of renewal has left many University teachers working more hours than they are being paid for and suffering from burnout, as they attempt to meet outrageous demands for grading deadlines and taking on large class loads. While there are approximately 2,500 members of the The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) at the University of Melbourne, it is reported that one out of ten union employees are not securely employed. This means that more than half of the staff are hired on a per-term basis and are unsure whether or not they will be asked to come work the following semester.

While there is no clear reason for the University to keep so many teachers on casual or fixed term contracts, the easiest answer is power. By keeping teachers and staff on these short term contracts, they are essentially deeming everyone replaceable. It also leaves teachers in a state of fear, wondering when or if they will have a job next semester. Additionally, it  encourages the teachers to not only take on an incredibly high workload for meager pay, but also discourages them from protesting or speaking up about it for fear they will not be offered another contact. Adele comments, “that's how they make it economical, through fear and shame.” When I asked about benefits with Adele and Beth, they each discussed that the benefits are, in reality, not very accessible. “The University is after every pound of flesh from its workers,” remarks Beth. They explained that while they do get annual leave, they have been told to only take it when there is a semester break, which defeats the purpose of leave as the University is already on break. Along the same lines, if a teacher is sick, an event which of course, is always sudden and unplanned, they must find their own replacement for their classes. This means they must give another overworked teacher more classes or teach whilst sick. One teacher explains that they “worked through Covid and [were] praised for doing that”. The inability for teachers to not have appropriate measures and support in place for when they get sick is something that must change. Along with these unsettling conditions faced by teachers, the financial disparity must also be discussed.

Around 40 million dollars has been calculated as the total withheld salary for staff and all the University has done to try and remedy this is by paying small, inconsequential amounts in backpay. With the increased cost in living, NTEU members are hoping to see a pay increase that will allow them to support themselves and continue teaching. While staff members are struggling to get paid a fair amount for their hard work, the vice chancellor makes a reported 1.5 million a year and lives on campus, rent-free. Left with no other options, the union has agreed to strike. 

The union members have already posed two strikes, one for two hours and another for a whole day. Many teachers reported that the University continuously says that they will make an offer, but according to David, “don't keep to their own timeframes or don’t come with anything at all.” The best offer they have received, according to James, was a six per cent pay increase taken out of their superannuation. “It feels like I'm being dangled a carrot with these supposed opportunities,” Beth laments. Teachers are constantly awaiting these supposed pay raises or longer contracts, which most still have not seen. Adele articulates her perception of the University's view by saying, “being professional means being okay with being exploited.” The members have already completed their first round of demonstrations in Week Six of Semester Two 2023, but as the University has yet to take action to meet the union's demands, they will be continuing their demonstrations on campus in Week Ten. This has now become the biggest strike in Australia's University sector in decades.


Credit: NTEU UoM Branch


The NTEU members will call off the strike if the University offers them a reasonable deal. On the contrary, the members may strike for even longer if the University does not pose an offer. The strike means that participating members will not hold lectures, tutorials, consultations, grade work, or respond to emails. “It does need to be disruptive to be effective but it needs to disrupt management not the students,” Adele continues, “in order to get the attention of the University and see change.” The strikers are demanding more secure work, fair wages and better working conditions.

In discussing why the teachers feel like they have to strike, one idea from Scott really stands out: “Management sees the University as a business and the students as customers.”  Rather than being run by academics, the University is managed, with the goal seemingly being to get people to attend the University and generate  money rather than produce good outcomes. As you may or may not know, the University plans on taking down six buildings in the University and likely will spend outrageous amounts of money to build new ones. This seems like a way to make the University appear better on the outside while chaos ensues on the inside. The teachers and I agreed that many of the classrooms are set up in a way that makes them look appealing rather than being functional for teaching. In my discussion with Scott and Leonard, they agreed that the University board is doing this so that the “University will look nice on a brochure” and bring in more students, especially international students who pay more than domestic students. While these plans are in place, there is currently no public plan to increase staff wages, reduce workload, or improve working conditions. 

A reluctance to teach is not the issue. James comments,“I love teaching. It's like why I get up in the morning, I love it.” Adele echoes this, saying, “I actually adore teaching and talking to my students, but I always feel like I have one foot out the door at a moment.” The decision to strike was not an easy one as many educators share the same sentiment as explained by Scott: “we are just in the situation we’re in to get everything we need done, done.” David declares, "if we're not fighting for this now then when?” 

As students, we pay thousands of dollars for each class, spend hours in the classroom and time at home working on assignments and make sacrifices to our sleep and social lives to be good students, all in the hopes that we get a piece of paper saying ‘Congrats, you did it.’ I know I personally would not be able to go to class and do my assignments without the help of my teachers. It is important that we students can stand with the teachers and do what we can to support them so they can continue supporting us. 


Photo credits to: NTEU University of Melbourne Branch

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