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Australian unis could not function without casual staff: it is time to treat them as ‘real’ employees


This article is part of our series on big ideas for the University Agreement. The federal government is calling for ideas to “reshape and reinvent higher education, setting it up for the next decade and beyond”. An assessment team must complete a draft report in June and a final report in December 2023.

University working life may conjure up images of professors with offices full of books, built up over a decades-long career in one institution. But the reality is uncertainty has become the norm in Australian higher education, teaching and research.

According to the University Agreement Discussion paper stakeholders have already done so

concerns have been raised about precarious employment and underpayment in higher education, especially for temporary or permanent staff.

The discussion paper also notes that 50 to 80% of undergraduate education in Australia is now provided by temporary or permanent staff (who are hired for a semester). However, the actual figure is probably higher than universities full-time equivalent staff report rather than the actual number of people working on a contract basis.

The University Agreement represents the best chance in a generation to solve the harrowing employment practices in higher education.

If it is to do so, it must recognize the significant contribution of people in precarious employment to both teaching and research at Australian universities. We need to stop treating casuals like they’re an afterthought, rather than an essential part of higher education.

A huge increase in casual staff

Since the late 1980s, the employment of temporary workers has been increasing. According to the National Union for Tertiary Educationthe number of temporary and temporary employees in higher education grew by 89% between 2000 and 2019. The number of permanent (or permanent) employees increased by 49% in the same period.

The union also estimates more than A$100 million unpaid wages is due to temporary academic staff in Australia.

Up to 80% of Australian undergraduate education is provided by informal or incumbent staff.

Precarious work is also common at universities around the world. All around half of all academic staff in the UK and more than 70% of the workforce in the United States are “non-tenure track”, meaning they are employed on short-term contracts with no promise of continued employment or career progression.

A key difference for Australian academics is the proliferation of highly informal project-specific roles. These roles lead to semester-based employment for teaching and hour-based contracts for research work.

So instead of being employed by one institution for a period of time, Australian academics juggling different contracts in both education and research, across several universities. As a result, they work long hours little time for your own research – a necessity for researchers who want to make a career in academia.

There are no statistics for the number of people working at multiple institutions, but most of the casual academics we encountered in our survey work at multiple universities. This has also been reported in media investigations on temporary staff in higher education.

Our research: ‘a trend of overtime’

Our research examines the experiences of those working in precarious roles in Australia. Between 2018 and 2019, we spoke to 27 academics working in a variety of precarious positions at universities in Australia and the UK.

Two of the main problems for casuals are insecurity and a lack of career advancement. As one researcher, with over a decade of experience, told us:

I once had someone I worked with say, “Oh, you need to think about your career and your career path,” and I just thought, “I have too much to do to think about my career.” I really think (…) if you can just get a job and keep working, that’s an achievement in itself.

Our conversation research also showed that contract researchers are often employed with grant funding for projects in which they may have little expertise. These researchers often work additional unpaid hours to “prove their worth” and increase the likelihood of future employment.

As one interviewee who has worked on a number of hourly contracts in the social sciences points out:

I would probably work three or four days in the beginning for just one day of (paid) work. So I think there’s a trend of wanting to work overtime, if you’re starting out as an informal research assistant, because you really want to prove your worth.

Despite the huge proportion of contract researchers, interviewees indicate that they are treated as throwaways not be part of the “real” academic workforce. Unfortunately, it is not mandatory for universities to report on contract continuation or career progression for people in precarious positions.

Session teachers face similar challenges, with some getting as little as ten minutes read a paper and give feedback. They also don’t get paid time to support struggling students.

The temporary nature of the financing means that it is there little supervision of their terms of employment, training or career development. A 2019 union survey of more than 6,000 casuals found only 18% were satisfied with their “method”. More than two-thirds of the respondents prefer permanent work.

Read more: ‘Some treat you like an idiot’: What it’s like to be a casual academic

What should be done instead

A thorough overhaul of the work structures of the universities is needed.

This should start by including practices that are considered “normal” in other industries, namely: payment for all work completed, payment for attending mandatory meetings, payment for a minimum number of hours per “shift”, sufficient time to complete work, career progression, professional development and income stability.

Universities should also recognize the diversity of employees’ employment goals and focus on fair conditions for all staff. For example, not all academics want to work full-time or do research. Universities could create part-time teaching-oriented positions for those who want to maintain their value in their industry while working at a university, or for those who want flexible work arrangements.

A stack of open books.
Temporary staff should be paid for all the work they do.

These jobs should not be seen as peripheral to the “real” work of universities, but should be recognized as a core component of modern university work structures. Those who choose to remain in casual employment should be paid fairly for all work completed and have easier mechanisms to convert to permanent employment if they so wish.

Universities should also support tenured academics so that they have the time and capacity to improve their supervision and mentoring of temporary or contract staff.

Read more: Here’s what government and universities can do about the crisis of precarious academic work

Stable and continuous financing of universities is essential in this regard.

First, the percentage of gross domestic product invested in research could be increased. Australia spends 1.8% of GDP on research, up from 2.25% in 2008 and well below the OECD average of 2.68%. Figures for 2020 show universities funded more than half of their own research and development, representing 36% of all Australian research.

The current lack of funding security makes it much more difficult to plan projects and to employ researchers permanently.

Safer funding along with policies that move universities away from a business model (where staff are cut in the name of the budget) could make a significant difference in how universities hire.

The consequences of these changes extend beyond the individual employee. Making staff safer and better supported will also contribute to improvements in teaching and learning, as well as leading research.

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