Students are not the only ones doing it tough during COVID-19. Our tutors and unit staff are also struggling, with an immense change to their teaching schedules and styles. Their representative body is the NTEU, and the QUT Branch of the NTEU, have some concerns about teaching conditions. We spoke to Amy Sargeant about her and the NTEU’s concerns in an interview to Glass.
For those of us who don’t know, what is the NTEU and what is your relationship with them?
The NTEU is the Australian trade union for all higher education and university employees. The NTEU is the only Union which works exclusively in higher education! We are democratic, with elected committees of university staff members at your university, your State and nationwide.
I am the NTEU’s Queensland representative for our ‘Queer Unionists in Tertiary Education’ group, and the representative for casual employees on our QUT branch committee.
Sessional and casual staffers make up the majority of the teaching team for QUT classes, how have they been affected by the transition to online learning?
Across the board, the switch to online delivery has been damn hard. I really feel for my students, who have to spend hours a day battling ‘Zoom fatigue’ and are missing out on the full uni experience right now. I also feel for the Unit Coordinators, who have had to restructure these immensely complex units in just a few days. For casual staffers like me, the current situation has been marred by lack of communication, over-stuffed classes and a lack of support with regards to the equipment needed for online delivery. Through a series of meetings, our QUT casuals have unanimously communicated that conducting online teaching requires significantly more time than face-to-face learning. Despite not being paid, our members report that on average they are working and extra 10-15 hours per week. I think students would be shocked to learn this!
Do you feel that adequate concessions have been provided by the university to allow these staff members to prepare?
Not yet. We remain waiting to hear if the VC will follow through on our recommendations.
What happens to students when tutors do not receive adequate support?
A lot – but the most worrying effect is quality of learning for students takes a nosedive.
You penned an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor on behalf of casuals. Can you explain what you are calling for?
As soon as possible, we requested a meeting of sessional union representatives and the Vice-Chancellor. We asked for full and correct payment for all hours worked, and a commitment to a cap on the size of online tutorials that is equal to pre-COVID19 arrangements. Finally, we asked for the Vice-Chancellor to commit to sessional staff that they will be provided with the IT and other equipment that they need for on-line delivery while working from home. At the time of writing, we have not received a comprehensive response from the VC.
We often talk about staff supporting students, in this instance, what can students do to help staff at this time?
The main thing that I would ask from students is understanding the conditions of sessional teaching staff. Your tutors are often the last to know information and have little power to change the actual conditions of teaching – yet still most tutors go above and beyond, sacrificing their own time to ensure students get the education they are paying for.
Students can organise in the Guild to ensure that management is held to account on providing the proper staffing levels to ensure they get their money’s worth. At the end of the day student income keeps the university running and they have enormous power to influence management – so use it.
In the time of COVID-19, we have seen unionism win again and again. Why do you think it’s important for university communities to have a strong union culture at this time?
QUT is the most casualised university in Australia, and who benefits from that? Certainly not the casuals, who want to organise and improve conditions. We’re often never in the same room to coordinate anything. The union provides a strong, proven framework to get stuff done.
Any casual members who join NTEU in the coming weeks will also receive an immediate 3-month waiver on their fees!