Academics from Melbourne's largest universities - the University of Melbourne, Monash, Deakin and La Trobe - will stage a four-hour strike on Wednesday in response to the ongoing dispute over wages and working conditions. 

The move comes as other universities across the country are expected to join in with rolling industrial action throughout the week.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has warned that protest actions are set to ripple across almost every campus in Australia in response to grievances over casualisation, low pay offers and wage theft.

Dr Alison Barnes, National President of the NTEU, noted that universities have the highest levels of casualisation of any sector in the economy, with only three in every 10 jobs permanent. 

“Casualisation has its place, but it was never meant to be the business model on which universities run,” she said, adding that casualisation is also linked to workload issues and wage theft.

This week, universities including Newcastle, the University of New South Wales, the University of Queensland, Federation University and James Cook are also set to take action.

The NTEU has already won “decasualisation” clauses at Western Sydney University, Australian Catholic University and the University of Technology Sydney in the last six months. Meanwhile, a new agreement at the University of Sydney has seen 330 casual roles converted to permanent positions.

In February, a report into wage theft by the NTEU found that universities had so far been ordered to pay back more than $83 million to casual workers, with the University of Melbourne alone underpaying staff to the tune of $45 million.

The union is also angered by a leaked strategy document from the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association which outlines ways universities could limit wage increases and prevent themselves “being roped into multi-employer agreements”.

However, industrial relations expert Andrew Stewart from the University of Adelaide believes that individual bargaining is a time-consuming and costly exercise that ends up with remarkably similar results. 

“They should be just doing a sectoral agreement because almost everything that’s discussed is nothing to do with an individual university,” Professor Stewart said. 

“Almost all of the big issues are sector-wide, and casual employment is clearly one of them.”

The union is pushing for a 15 per cent pay rise over three years, while universities are pushing for much lower figures. 

Staff at the University of Canberra negotiated a deal linked to CPI last year. If inflation was under 1.9 per cent, that would be their minimum pay increase. 

However, if it was over, staff would be paid the equivalent of the annual inflation exactly 13 months after its official end-of-year announcement.