By Kathleen Smithers, Jess Harris, and Nerida Spina
The federal government is calling for ideas to “reshape and reimagine higher education, and set it up for the next decade and beyond”. A review team is due to finish a draft report in June and a final report in December 2023.
University working life may conjure up images of professors with book-lined offices, built up over a decades-long career in the one institution. But the reality is precarity has become the norm in Australian higher education teaching and research.
According to the Universities Accord discussion paper stakeholders have already
raised concerns about insecure work and underpayment in the higher education sector, particularly for casual or sessional staff.
The discussion paper also notes 50 to 80% of undergraduate teaching in Australia is now done by casual or sessional staff (who are hired for a semester). However, the true figure is likely to be higher as universities report on “full-time equivalent” staff rather than the actual number of people employed on contracts.
The Universities Accord represents the best opportunity in a generation to fix the dire employment practices in higher education.
If it is going to do this, it needs to recognise the significant contribution of those in precarious employment to both teaching and research in Australian universities. We must stop treating casuals as though they are an afterthought, rather than a vital part of higher education.
A huge rise in casual staff
Employment of casual staff has been on the rise since the late 1980s. According to the National Tertiary Education Union, the number of casual and fixed-term staff in higher education grew 89% between 2000 and 2019. The number of continuing (or permanent) staff increased by 49% over the same period.
The union also estimates more than A$100 million in unpaid wages is owed to casual academic staff in Australia.
Precarious employment is also common in universities across the globe. Around half of all academic staff in the United Kingdom and more than 70% of staff in the United States are “non-tenure track”, meaning that they are employed on short-term contracts without any promise of ongoing work or career progression.
A key difference for Australian academics is the proliferation of highly casualised project-specific roles. These roles lead to semester-based employment for teaching and hours-based contracts for research work.
So, rather than being employed by one institution for a fixed period, Australian academics juggle a variety of contracts in both teaching and research, across multiple universities. This sees them work long hours with little time for their own research – an imperative for researchers looking to make a career in academia.
There are no statistics for the number of people employed at multiple institutions, but most casual academics we encountered in our research work across multiple universities. This has also been reported in media investigations about casual staff in the higher education sector.
Our research: ‘a trend of overwork’
Our research investigates the experiences of those employed in precarious positions in Australia. Between 2018 and 2019, we spoke with 27 academics employed in a range of insecure roles at universities in Australia and the UK.
Two of the main issues for casuals is insecurity and a lack of career progression. As one researcher, with more than a decade of experience, told us:
I did have someone I was working with one time saying, ‘Oh, you need to think about your career, and your career path’ and I just thought, ‘I’ve got too much to do to think about my career’. I think really […] if you can just get a job and keep working, that’s an achievement in itself.
Our interview research also showed contract researchers are often employed on grant funding for projects in which they may have little expertise. These researchers frequently work additional unpaid hours to “prove their worth” and increase the possibility of future employment.
As one interviewee who has worked on a number of hours-based contracts in social sciences notes:
I’d work probably three or four days, at the start, for just one day of [paid] work. So, I think there is very much a trend of wanting to overwork, when you’re starting out as a casual research assistant, because you really want to prove your worth.
Despite the huge proportion of contract researchers, interviewees report they are treated as disposable and not part of the “real” academic workforce. Unfortunately, there is no requirement for universities to report on the continuation of contracts or career development for those in precarious positions.
Sessional teaching staff face similar challenges, with some allocated only ten minutes to read a piece of work and provide feedback. They are also not given any paid time to support struggling students.
The temporary nature of the funding means there is little oversight of their employment conditions, training or career progression. A 2019 union survey of more than 6,000 casuals found only 18% were satisfied with their “mode” of employment. More than two thirds of those surveyed preferred permanent work.
What needs to happen instead
A dramatic overhaul of university employment structures is required.
This should begin by including practices that are considered “normal” in other industries, namely: payment for all work completed, payment for attendance at compulsory meetings, payment for a minimum number of hours per “shift”, adequate time to complete work, career progression, professional development and stability of income.
Universities should also recognise the diversity of employees’ employment aims and focus on fair conditions for all staff. For example, not all academics would like to work full-time or undertake research. Universities could create part-time teaching-focused roles for those who would like to maintain currency in their industry whilst working at a university, or for those who want flexible working arrangements.
These jobs should not be considered peripheral to the “real” work of universities but acknowledged as a core component of modern university employment structures. Those who choose to remain in causal employment should be paid fairly for all work completed and have easier mechanisms to convert to permanent employment should they wish to do so.
Universities should also support academics in ongoing employment to have the time and capacity to improve their supervision and mentoring of casual or contract staff.
As part of this, stable and continuous funding to universities is essential.
To start with, the percentage of Gross Domestic Product invested in research could be increased. Australia spends 1.8% of GDP on research, down from 2.25% in 2008 and well behind the OECD average of 2.68%. 2020 figures show universities funded more than half of their own research and development, which accounts for 36% of all Australian research.
The current lack of funding certainty makes it much harder to plan projects and employ researchers in an ongoing capacity.
More secure funding along with policy settings that steer universities away from a corporatised model (where spending on staff is cut in the name of budget bottom lines), could have a significant difference on how universities employ staff.
The impacts of these changes extend beyond the individual employee. If staff are more secure and better supported, this will also support improvements in teaching and learning as well as world-leading research.
Kathleen Smithers, Lecturer, Charles Sturt University; Jess Harris, Associate Professor in Education, University of Newcastle, and Nerida Spina, Associate professor, Queensland University of Technology