Does the extent of casualisation of the Australian academic workforce provide flexibility to beat the COVID-19 hit?

By Elizabeth Baré, Janet Beard and Teresa Tjia

Since the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic in early March 2020 and associated restrictions, Australian universities have acted quickly to manage their budgets and focus on the ‘must-haves’, including reducing casuals, hiring freezes, executive salary cuts and deferring infrastructure projects. Further, some universities are foreshadowing redundancies and cutting courses and subjects.

In addition to making cost savings in the post-COVID19 world, universities could also look to see if there are opportunities that present which could be capitalised upon.  There is never a better time for universities to explore new ways to deliver courses, improve the student experience and undertake research, whilst systematically examining the underpinning management of resources, staffing structures and costs.  In further papers we will canvass the challenges and possibilities for a better ‘normal’ in higher education as society and institutions recover and rebound, following the rapid response, disrupted delivery model that universities have adopted with the heightened financial and social isolation pressures.  In the initial papers we will explore what opportunities could be adopted with the workforce to transition to a different but high quality, engaged, productive, creative and sustainable university workforce in the post-COVID-19 world, one which enables high quality educational outcomes, in both the short and longer term. Our focus in this paper is on casual academic staff and we will look at professional staff in our next paper.

To date, one of the most immediate and expedient budget mitigation strategies is to reduce casual staff (also known as sessional staff).  Cutting academic casual teaching is not without risks with estimates that between 40 to 60% of current undergraduate teaching in Australian universities is delivered or marked by casual staff.  Long term effectiveness of this measure will need to be accompanied with realigning workload allocation of permanent and fixed term staff, and review of academic programs on offer, as well as delivery modes.

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Elizabeth Baré