AUSTRALIA: Majority of academics are casual

Casualisation of the Australian academic workforce has long been of concern to education unions but until now no-one knew the full extent. So revelations that casual academics far outnumber those with permanent or ongoing employment have shocked the entire community.

A study by a PhD research student at Griffith University in Brisbane found that 67,000 academics were working as casuals in the nation's universities. This means 60% of the academic workforce has no guarantee of employment and most have no holiday or sick leave entitlements.

Worse still, no matter how many years casual academics are employed as lecturers or tutors, they remain on the same hourly rate because this is the same for all casuals and experience counts for nothing.

"This should be a wake-up call for universities," said Jeannie Rea, President of the National Tertiary Education Union. "As much as 50% if not more of teaching conducted at universities is done by casual academic staff. This is not sustainable."

Rea said the scale of casualisation was a systemic issue: "The data tell us that Australian universities are running on expendable labour. This is not only counter-productive in terms of the professional development of staff. It fails to encourage loyalty to the profession, and if unchecked will deepen the oncoming academic workforce crisis."

She said that faced with the prospect of an endless cycle of insecure casual employment, engaged on a semester by semester basis, many early career academics and researchers would leave the sector for more secure and career structured employment.

"We will have another lost generation on our hands. These 67,000 casuals are performing highly skilled work at a cut-price rate. NTEU has been arguing long and hard to achieve a more secure and rewarding working life for long-term casual and early career academic staff.

"Unless the sector takes this issue seriously and provides real career opportunities for the next generation of Australian academics, it will be facing a workforce crisis in the very near future. The sector will have only itself to blame."

The study was undertaken by Robyn May who analysed membership records of the national university staff superannuation fund, UniSuper for her doctoral research. May found more than half of all casual academics were women although for the 25-45 age group the ratio was two in every three.

A report published last month by the LH Martin Institute in Melbourne says universities employ academics on sessional contracts or as casuals for a range of reasons.

These include the fact they provide a lower industrial risk to institutions, while employing and dismissing sessional staff can be much easier and involve fewer administrative hurdles.

The report says that despite the significant role casual academics play, "strikingly little information" is available about them. Obviously, the writers were unaware of the research undertaken by Robyn May.

Pointing to the serious demographic challenges facing Australian universities as a result of their ageing academic workforce, the report says demography is not the only challenge to supply: nearly half of all people obtaining Australian PhDs prefer to work outside the tertiary sector.

The uncertainty that comes with casual employment is no doubt a key factor in that decision.

Oh, for goodness sake. I have never heard such a lot of rubbish in my life. I have been working as a casual academic for 16 years now after declining a fractional position when my son was too young for the after-hours meetings miles from my home and with a husband busy 6.5 days a week in a new business. I have watched conditions for casuals deteriorate. I have watched the increase in casualisation over that time and I am only one person. The union has a small army so it is ridiculous to say "you didn't notice it". You didn't want to notice it. You were only working for the permanently employed. I have had cause to go to the union twice in that time. The union did nothing for me. One of my concerns was the measly way universities abrogate their long service leave responsibilities to casuals. What was I told? Oh sorry - we can't do anything - yes, by the union.

The union does - and did - know about creeping casualisation but did nothing to stop it, and did nothing to attract casuals to the union. In view of what the union actually does for casuals the sub should be be no more than five bucks.

Alanna Hardman

It's not exactly fair to say that the union did nothing to stop casualisation - the fact is that we couldn't do anything under the Howard Government's industrial laws, that prevented the union from imposing or maintaining (if they already had them) caps on casualisation as part of collective agreements.

It's very difficult for the union to organise casual staff members - and of course, casual staff usually feel too vulnerable to take action in their own defence. In my experience the union does its best for casual staff but is somewhat hamstrung by the lack of collective action by casuals and by the nature of casual employment itself. Long service leave is a matter for the Long Service Leave Act and any provisions included in workplace agreements - union members work hard to get the best outcomes in bargaining for those agreements but once they are in place then the union can only enforce what is there.

Did you assist the union's negotiations by joining and taking action to win the best agreement possible? Did other staff in your situation? The union isn't "someone else" - it's the members. And it can only achieve what the members collectively are prepared to stand up for by taking action where necessary.

The combination of casual staff vulnerability and unwillingness to join up and be part of the union's work (of course there are individual exceptions, but union membership amongst casuals is pretty low) makes it very difficult for the union to achieve the desired outcomes for that group of staff.

Cathy Rytmeister,
Macquarie University