Does the COVID-19 emergency create an opportunity to reform the Australian university workforce?

By Elizabeth Baré, Janet Beard, Ian Marshman and Teresa Tjia.


Universities in Australia and their staff have nimbly responded to the COVID 19 emergency.  To ensure the workforce capacity to sustain that response in emerging and radically different circumstances, it is necessary to consider whether the underpinning human resource and industrial relations structures provide the leeway to do so.

There are underlying structural problems within the higher education workforce, particularly around the organisation of work, the engagement and payment structure for academic casuals and their key role in delivering teaching.  Organisational and cultural assumptions limit the contribution of many professional staff to academic and institutional endeavour.

These problems have been known for many years.  They limit flexible and creative responses to future challenges, but solutions are difficult and contested.  The COVID-19 pandemic provides a rare opportunity for review and reform.  As a basis for discussion, we suggest some practical ways forward.

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Elizabeth Baré and Janet Beard are Honorary Senior Fellows of the LH Martin Institute, Ian Marshman is Honorary Principal Fellow of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education and Teresa Tjia is an Honorary Fellow of the LH Martin Institute.  

The authors have worked many years in higher education at senior levels and draw on their experience and knowledge of the sector in writing this paper.

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Elizabeth Baré