Casual university staff – not one size fits all

By Elizabeth Bare, Janet Beard and Teresa Tjia

Comment on recent news items on mass casualisation of the university workforce

The predicament of university staff has been in the news in past few days. The situation is more complex and requires a more nuanced response. As emphasised in our recent article, casual learning and teaching staff are an essential part of the university workforce, in the past and will be going forward. We outlined the opportunities for universities and the sector to transform the role of casuals so they and all staff can contribute to the university recovery post COVID-19.

Given the significance of this staff cohort’s contribution and effort, universities and government must do better in understanding and keeping data on their casual and fixed term staff and what they do.  It has been reported that 72.9% of staff being employed at the University of Melbourne on uncertain terms but the large number of casual and fixed term staff in Australian universities hides a diversity of activity essential to the operations of a university so a one size fits all solution is not appropriate. For example:

  • Fixed term staff includes staff who are employed on research grants. Almost invariably, a research grant funds a university for a stipulated amount of time to undertake a specific task, and employment is usually tied to the length of the grant. Unless the underlying system of research funding is changed, most researchers in Australian universities will be employed on fixed term contracts.
  • Many academic casuals in professional fields including medicine, allied health and education are employed by other organisations and supervise students in practical placements.  Others are successful practitioners who teach as part of giving back to the profession or for CPD points, or are retired academics.
  • The experience and opportunity provided by casual teaching is an important part of academic formation of PhD students and early career academics. The stronger the research base of a university, the greater the number of research higher degree students many of whom may be undertaking casual work.

However, this does not hide the fact that there are many casual staff who rely on teaching and marking as a key source of their income, a group otherwise known as ‘treadmill academics’ and which is over-represented by women.  It is this last group of staff which most fit what is commonly reported. There is no national data on the size of this group. Universities and the NTEU need to gain greater clarity on what casual and fixed term staff do, rather than assuming that all their employment in higher education is a single problem with a single solution. The disruption caused by COVID-19 creates an opportunity for the sector to explore new solutions.

Elizabeth Bare and Janet Beard, Honorary Senior Fellows, LH Martin Institute, and Teresa Tjia, Strategic Advisor. We have held senior professional and executive roles in several Australian universities over many years.

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Elizabeth Baré