TAFE & Adult Provision Exhausted by August: the problem of teaching hours in TAFE

Chisholm TAFE rep David Last. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

When teachers at his TAFE institute told him they had exhausted their teaching allocation by August, it set off alarm bells for AEU rep David Last.

“They had effectively done a year’s work in eight months,” David says. “All of a sudden, we had teachers reporting burnout and taking stress leave. That caused us to start drilling down, meeting with members to find out exactly what was going on with workplans.”

Earlier in the year, David had received reports that Chisholm TAFE was applying the same teaching hour model used by the Automotive Centre of Excellence at Bendigo Kangan Institute (BKI). In 2021, the Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled in favour of BKI’s case for making the ‘final demonstration’ process part of the 400 hours of duties that comprise planning and assessment, rather than the 800 hours allocated to teaching delivery.

As the AEU argued at the Fair Work hearing, assessing the ‘final demonstration’ is not a simple, hands-off process. It involves monitoring whether a student can complete an important task correctly and safely – often requiring repeated attempts in which the rostered teacher provides guidance and instruction, i.e. teaching.

Since the FWC’s decision, the union has carefully monitored the practices of other TAFEs. However, establishing exactly what was going on at Chisholm proved no easy task. AEU TAFE organiser Carolyn Pearce says the union started investigating workplans back in May 2023, trying to understand how the institute was allocating 7.5 hours of work against what appeared to be an eight-hour teaching day.

“Along the way, we asked Chisholm’s management if they were applying the BKI decision and they said they were,” Carolyn says. ”In the end, it turned out they weren’t – they had just incorrectly allocated the days against their records of teachers’ work.”

David says trying to work out the specifics of what was happening at his institute laid bare a much broader issue. “The BKI decision was the trail that started the journey, but it led quite quickly into realising that, essentially, it’s the system buckling.

“We’re trying to demonstrate how we’re being overworked and underpaid, and this story is a shining example.”

TAFEs often don’t have the bodies on the ground to be able to deliver the content that we’re supposed to deliver and, as a result, people are making really tough choices around: do we cancel classes, or do we ask teachers to do a little bit more?

“The problem has been that the ‘little bit more’ has actually been a lot more, and not always properly remunerated.”

The good news is that, with the AEU’s help, David has been able to secure backpay for his members for their hours, week to week. Conversations are ongoing about unpaid overtime for the year’s overall summary of work. Another positive is increased awareness for both the institute and its teachers about the importance of a workplan, with a shift to more accurate reporting of teachers’ face-to-face hours. 

For David, the win is less about the backpay than raising the awareness of teacher workload and the stress many staff are facing. “I mean, money’s always great but, moving forward, people have a greater respect for the intensity of teaching and the burnout that it can create,” he says.

“Teaching is a hard job. A lot of passion and energy goes into it. And, for our members, I think last year has really shone a light on the fact that we all have limitations that need to be respected.”

Carolyn says the success at Chisholm also highlights how commonly Victorian TAFE institutes rely on overloading their staff. She reminds members to check in with their sub-branch if they believe that workplans aren’t being respected or applied correctly.

“I’d really encourage members to touch base with their reps and undertake available union training so they can better understand their commitments around annual workload and ensure that they’re monitoring and actively engaging with their workplans across the year. It’s the best way to ensure that payments for overtime or excess teaching duties don’t get missed.”

David says that assisting members has led to him becoming an expert on the current agreement, and helped outline a few changes he wants to see in the next one. “I don’t blame Chisholm for what occurred; I really do think it’s a two-part problem of a lack of understanding of the importance of workplans, and the fact that the government’s just not doing enough to support TAFEs,” he says.

“It’s interesting that this has all come to a head in a year of potential movement around the agreement. It’s going to be a really interesting year for unionism. We’re trying to demonstrate how we’re being overworked and underpaid, and this story is a shining example. I hope the Victorian TAFE Association listens to it.”

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