Prove your humanity

Dozens of Curtin staff have stood up against the university’s management, striking for better pay, job security and First Nations employment.

On March 23, lecturers and tutors gathered outside the Engineering Pavilion on campus to voice their disapproval.

Dr Francis Russell is disappointed in management’s unwillingness to seriously consider the NTEU’s proposals. Photo: Sarah Taillier.

Curtin’s Bachelor of Arts Honours Coordinator Dr Francis Russell is on the bargaining team for Curtin’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU).

He says academics have been negotiating with Curtin management for over a year and wants to see a ‘legally binding commitment’ in providing Curtin staff with better job security.

“We’ve been meeting with [Curtin management] regularly, but management have been unwilling to seriously consider the proposals we’ve been putting on the table,” he says.

“We’ve been asking for some ambitious changes, but they are fair changes, they are changes that will give students the kind of education that they need and that they deserve.”

Curtin currently employs around 6,000 casual staff, but Russell says the NTEU have asked the university to reduce its reliance on casuals by at least 30 per cent as well as a pay increase that takes into account the cost of living.

Bea Flint (left) and Dr Francis Russell (right) are calling for change. Photo: Jessica Evensen

School of Education casual academic Bea Flint says eighty percent of casual staff at the School of Education are being ‘exploited.’

“We have a wage theft claim with the fair work commission being investigated,” she says.

“We don’t get sick leave, we don’t get annual leave, we didn’t get any leave during the pandemic at all … we cannot rely on this institution.”

“[Curtin management] are people who are on incredible salaries ranging from $400,000 to potentially around a million dollars if you’re looking at the vice chancellor,” Russell says.

“These are managers who last year denied Curtin staff a pay increase but gave themselves a two per cent pay increase because they apparently they were struggling to get by with inflation.”

School of Education senior lecturer and NTEU delegate Dr Paul Gardner says management are ‘scrimping’ on staff wages.

“[Management] have set aside something like a billion dollars for capital building expenditure … but who are the soul of the university? It’s the academics, it’s the students, these are the people that make the university run.”

The number of First Nations staff at Curtin are declining each year. Photo: Jessica Evensen.

Another purpose of the strike was to apply pressure on the university to employ more First Nations staff.

In 2021, only 2.1 per cent of Curtin staff were First Nations People and in 2022 the figure had dropped down to 1.9 per cent.

“We’re concerned [this number] is going to continue to drop unless management makes a serious commitment,” Russell says.

Gardner says this is an ‘issue about equity.’

“Part of this university’s strategic plan is to Indigenise the curriculum, to advance knowledge about Indigenous people,” he says.

“But who has that knowledge? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff …  But we’ve lost these people and the people that are left are having huge demands placed on them.”

Academics are concerned the small group of First Nations staff are being ‘burdened’ in demands for their expertise on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture.

“On the one hand, management are saying ‘yes, yes, it’s really important we employ more [First Nations people],” Gardner says.

“But on the other hand, they are not putting the action where the mouth is.”

In the seven years of working at the university, this is the first strike Gardner has been a part of.

“Teachers and academics generally do not go on strike easily, for people to take this type of action means they are kind of at the end of their tether,” he says.

“They have lost patience with management and the university, and there is a lot of anger amongst staff about the way the university has been run.”