Inquiry participants—many of whom submitted anonymously—painted a picture of a sector dominated by insecure work and exploitation. One submitter wrote:
… our entire national tertiary education system is characterised by massive under employment, insecure work without sufficient career paths and opportunities, and under payment.
This chapter details evidence on the positive and negative impacts of higher education employment arrangements for:
academics and teaching staff; and
The main arguments that university management teams put forward as to why universities employ casually is a need for flexibility, and a desire to save costs, motivated by risk management principles.
In a joint submission, the Attorney-General's Department, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) and the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources asserted that businesses use part-time employment to 'improve flexibility' and 'respond to cyclical fluctuations in demand for their output'.
The committee received evidence which suggested that the sessional nature of the university calendar acts as a deterrent for university management to offer permanent employment. Casual contracts allow the university to hire short‑term, in line with the university's semesters. Mr Stuart Andrews, Executive Director of the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA), talked about this with regard to casual conversion clauses in the Fair Work Act 2009:
[I]n terms of a portion of a year, when somebody might be needed for only two or three weeks and that person needs to establish a pattern of regular employment over the preceding six months, if they were to establish a pattern, then I suppose there's very much an awkwardness in terms of what sort of continuing position does the employer provide for that person who is needed for only small parts of the year.
Witnesses questioned this practice in relation to other university trends. For instance, academic Dr Elizabeth Adamczyk argued that the continuous nature of core fundamental courses that are taught year in and year out are evidence of work that is 'ongoing and repeated':
We see a lot of people in teaching roles who teach the same subjects often semester after semester and year after year. For Paul, it was something like 18 years of teaching the same two subjects in large undergraduate economics courses which are always going to be taught because they are core across many degrees in the university.
University management also uses casual labour as a risk management tool to respond to fluctuating teaching demand and/or uncertain funding. To meet rising teaching demands, for example, casual staff can be 'employed simply to do teaching if that's all the university wants them to do'.
There exist other inflexibilities in current university practices or policies which may limit the capacity of university management to easily reallocate or reorganise teaching work to full-time staff. Mr Andrews explained that the 'rigidity of many of the academic workload provisions that we find in our enterprise agreements' (that is, the mandated allocation of a fixed percentage of time to research) limits universities when they need to reallocate working time to teaching for full-time staff.
In other words, evidence suggests that while universities are using casual employment models—with piece rate payment structures—to maintain flexibility, these models can sometimes, in fact, reduce flexibility.
Cost saving – cheaper to use casuals
As explained in Chapter 7, university funding from public sources has decreased. This has, in turn, incentivised universities to offer more casual contracts as they involve less overhead costs than permanent positions. Casual staff are also relatively easy and quick to engage and terminate when compared with fixed-term or permanent staff.
From a university management perspective, greater employee protections that apply to permanent academic staff means that a high-risk cost applies to any appointment made on a continuing basis. This situation acts as a deterrent to the use of continuing employment in cases where it is possible to make a fixed‑term or casual appointment instead. Mr Andrews elaborated on high severance costs being a deterrent for universities to engage academics on an ongoing basis:
If you look at redundancy provisions, at the community standards as reflected in the Fair Work Act and the maximum notice and redundancy payment provisions in the act, you've got a maximum of 21 weeks pay—notice and pay combined. If you contrast that with the redundancy entitlements for permanent academic staff, and some professional staff for that matter, in some cases you're up to over 80 weeks in entitlements in pay and notice combined. The very large redundancy payment problem is a big disincentive when we have such uncertain times, especially coming out of COVID.
As public institutions, universities have historically not been subject to the same market forces that cause redundancies in other sectors. The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) argued that 'growth in the sector' limits the occurrence of genuine redundancies:
Rather, redundancies have been driven by a culture of constant restructuring, perhaps encouraged by the growth in the number of managerial positions in university administrations. Only a small proportion of the $50–100m spent on redundancy payments each year by universities is related to functions becoming truly redundant.
In terms of employment models, the 40:40:20 model has been identified as being expensive to maintain as well as inflexible. Former University of Sydney (USYD) Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence described the current 40:40:20 model as 'very expensive' and unsustainable, suggesting instead that:
It is probably more realistic to think about not individuals, but communities of scholars, where some focus on research, some focus on teaching, where the amount of focus … might vary from person to person.
The universities therefore have 'a very strong financial incentive to keep casual workers as casual', due to the relative cheapness of hiring casuals compared to full-time employees, who have to abide by their enterprise agreement workload provisions. Dr Alison Barnes, NTEU National President, told the committee:
They're not paid 40-40-20 … Casuals don't have that same work model. It might be 100 or 80 per cent teaching, so they save money in the time that is allowed for research and that broader community service that academics provide in going to schools to talk to school leavers about what they might like to study. They're excluded from those things; therefore, they are cheaper to use.
While some academics may benefit from a flexible arrangement, as it may suit their specific circumstances, for others casual work merely means insecurity—of employment, income, and lifestyle.
The flexibility afforded by use of casual work suits the circumstances of some employees and allows the universities to benefit—a "win win". Particularly, this can apply to contract lecturers who are experts or professionals in a specific discipline area, and who provide professional accreditation services. Their principal employment is outside of a university, and they are often contracted to teach their expertise within degree programmes. Such employees are typically not financially dependent upon their university employment. Mr Andrews elaborated:
We've got another cohort of often ex-university students for the university concerned who are employed in industry or professional commercial practice, who come in for effectively guest-type lectures and tutorials for which they paid, and they are put on the casual payroll system for that purpose. We have retired academics who, likewise, might be engaged in a casual basis.
Another large cohort of casual workers is PhD students. It is common for them to take up casual work in order to complement their research and gain necessary teaching experience for their career trajectory. Mr Andrews gave the example that within one of the Group of Eight universities a significant number of the 2000 or 3000 casually employed academics would be PhD students:
A significant number of those [casual] appointments are PhD students who are provided with paid work that they can have hand in hand with the currency of their scholarship as a PhD student or masters student at the university. Those large numbers are part of the numbers that we're talking about here in terms of the percentage of staff that are engaged on a casual basis.
The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) explained that many postgraduate students do not cumulatively benefit from such employment but 'cling to this precarious environment', as gaining teaching experience is necessary for advancement in academia.
These examples indicate that casual employment is circumstantially appropriate within a university's workforce, but that such circumstances are not uniform and should not be applied to all individuals within the cohort. The NTEU observed that:
… a certain level of fixed term and casual employment in higher education is necessary… on these few legitimate foundations has now been built an edifice of low-quality teaching and research and staff exploitation.
When asked if university employees preferred the flexibility of casual employment, Dr Yaegan Doran, a member of the Casualised, Unemployed and Precarious University Workers, asserted that:
The flexibility is not flexibility for staff; it's flexibility for university managers.
Instability and inability to plan ahead
Casual academics have no guarantee of work from one semester to the next and contracts can be cancelled at short notice and without compensation. Fixed-term workers also have no assurance that their contract will be extended or if they will receive another one once their current contract expires. For academics, these circumstances facilitate ongoing financial instability and the inability to plan for the future.
The lack of regular predictable income makes it difficult for casual employees to present evidence of ongoing employment and impedes their ability to secure a lease or home loan. Dr Doran told the committee:
Not only do we worry about how we can pay rent this week and for the rest of our lease, for example, but trying to get something like a house deposit or even going to a bank and asking for a home loan is simply laughable.
The 25 per cent loading that casuals receive is insufficient to make up for the beneficial conditions that they do not receive. The NTEU identified that not having access to sick leave could compromise an individual's earning capacity for not only the period in which they were sick, but an 'indefinite period':
It is common practice to work while sick—sometimes severely sick. This is because to take a step back from your work not only risks not being paid for that day or that week, but not being able to take up another contract that comes your way, and so risking your income for an indefinite period.
The inability to adequately save for retirement is also typical of insecure working arrangements. Casuals do not receive the same superannuation contributions as full time staff (generally receiving the minimum 9.5 per cent, instead of the premium 17 per cent that permanent staff receive), and if they do not meet the minimum levels for monthly income earned under the Superannuation Guarantee provisions, they may not receive any superannuation at all.
The brevity of casual university contracts has led to academics having to take up multiple teaching contracts, often across different universities, in order to earn a liveable wage.
Box 8.1: Financial impacts—testimony from academics
'Usually, the period between Christmas and the start of university semester offers no work in my role. The return date to regular shifts is not something that is announced before the holiday period. I work an additional casual job outside the university. Most of my colleagues do the same'―anonymous casual academic.
'Precarity at work pervades personal life and impedes the ability to take opportunities such as marriage, family and, increasingly, retirement planning. It creates anxiety, which persists as a matter of course in my everyday life and intensifies each Christmas, when I again become unemployed, leaving me wondering whether I'll be picked up again in three months time and contemplating my ability to cope in the meantime.' ―Mr Paul Morris, casual academic.
'We've been able to purchase a house and maintain a mortgage and basic living costs because Paul works three jobs across three different institutions in the higher education sector.'―Dr Elizabeth Adamczyk, casual academic.
'As a casual and fixed-term worker at university for 10 years now, I have battled … I just don't know whether I'm going to have work in another three months …These personal impacts are constant and are really intrinsic to everything we do at every single stage.'―Dr Yaegan Doran, casual academic.
The committee heard that casual pay rates, including piece rates and activity misclassification, are the primary facilitators of wage theft. In 2020, the La Trobe Casuals Network administered a survey of casual staff, and of the 140 respondents:
63% indicated that they had been unpaid for work in 2020
71% had had to work on public holidays or outside normal business hours (casuals are not paid penalty rates)
32% had been instructed to fill in time sheets inaccurately
43% had been instructed to alter their marking practices to speed up the process
49% feared repercussions if they asked to be paid for all hours worked.
Comments from survey participants revealed the extent to which insecure working arrangements facilitated financial loss from underpayment:
Box 8.2: La Trobe University wage theft survey—testimony on underpayments
'The subject co-ordinator designed a piece of assessment that required students to submit a tutorial 'answer' each week for marking. I had approximately 120 students, so that meant 120 papers to mark each week over ten weeks of tutorials. I claimed this as marking time under my contract. After submitting my first timesheet, the subject coordinator emailed me to dispute my claim for payment: he didn't understand why I was claiming this marking time. I had to push back quite firmly to get this time recognised and remunerated. If I hadn't, he was expecting me to mark 1,200 papers over the semester for free.'—casual academic
'Unrealistic expectation to get marking complete in a short period of time. Casuals need to take on a lot of marking to earn enough money. Expectation to help subject coordinator with final results without payment.'—casual academic
'I have been paid less than half the amount I have worked marking assignments this year.'—casual academic
'Constantly being asked to claim less than what I was paid. Doing the job of the unit coordinator because she had so much extra work to do and was swamped also. In a strange way I was relieved to be unemployed this semester because it greatly helped my mental health, despite now being broke.'—casual academic
'I haven't had one correct pay cycle in 2020—I have to constantly follow up with my supervisors, school admin, and HR to find out why my hours aren't being approved. There have been multiple issues with my approver changing and confusion as to who my hours for approval are being sent to and why. I'm essentially performing unpaid work to make sure I'm paid properly.'—casual academic
'For roles where I was only involved in marking for a subject some coordinators/lecturers have directed all student queries and emails to me and requested me to provide individual consultation to large numbers of students on how their assessment was marked etc. all while I was only paid for a few hours of marking.'—casual academic
Professional development—publish or perish
Insecure work does not encourage career growth and may instead drive academics to leave the sector due to lack of permanent career opportunities. The 2008 Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Report) noted the sector's 'increasing difficulty in attracting and retaining high-quality academic staff'.
Advancement as an academic is contingent on demonstrating one's published research. This requires time, access to research funding and other financial assistance and resources. Such conditions are not available to casual academics. Most casual academics will therefore have limited opportunity to transition into full-time positions. Results from a 2020 survey of USYD casuals showed that one third of respondents had worked at the university for more than six years.
Furthermore, the burden of professional development shifts from employer to employee as universities do not acknowledge research as a justification for career advancement. Casual teachers are generally unable to find the hours to write and submit work for publication. Dr Barnes identified 'real impositions' on casuals' 'capacity to perform research', due to high teaching loads. Lack of capacity for casual academics means that they are more likely to leave the sector and seek employment elsewhere rather than succumb to perpetual job insecurity in academia.
Notions of poor professional development prospects are evident in early career academics. An Australian Council of Graduate Research report found that 51 per cent of postgraduates were 'pessimistic about securing related employment upon graduation'.
For fixed-term researchers, career advancement can become dependent upon continuous publication output. The number of academic publications an academic puts out can become a representation for academic productivity and ability. This becomes an issue where a fixed-term contract finishes but the research taking place does not:
Research is, by its very nature, at times amorphous and unpredictable. When the work inevitably goes longer than one's contract, staff are faced with a choice of stopping work on the project and thus risking its results not seeing the light of the day (which is not an option for staff who have to show continual research output to have a chance at gaining secure work) or to work for free to complete and publish the research, that will then be credited to the university's output.
A survey of over 1000 researchers, undertaken by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), found that 53 percent of respondents reported that 'uncertain job prospects was the worst thing about a research career'.
Not only do insecure working arrangements impact workers' ability to exercise their industrial rights but it also inhibits their ability to participate fully in political and community life in their institutions. Australia is party to international instruments such as the UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel (1997) which recommends, in part, that:
Security of employment in the profession, including tenure or its functional equivalent, where applicable, should be safeguarded as it is essential to the interests of higher education as well as those of higher-education teaching personnel.
Academic freedom is the 'cornerstone' of Australian universities. Dr Barnes described the effect of academic freedom upon the broader society:
You need academic freedom if you are to act as a public intellectual and engage in and contribute to community debates and debates that affect the livelihood and wellbeing of the nation. But you also need academic freedom if you are to comment fully on the operations of universities. We've seen instances where academics have talked, for example, about the impact of university policies on international students and have then been censured by their institutions. Our public universities are public institutions, and they need to be transparent. We need people to be able to research freely and comment freely. I think any erosion of academic freedom really strikes at universities' capacity to do what they are supposed to do. Their inherent purpose is to provide high-quality teaching and research, and to do that you need academic freedom.
Academic freedom is weakened by insecure work as casual employees, who are not afforded employment protections, may feel speaking up on controversial topics will compromise their employment. In such an environment, innovation is constrained as insecure employees are less likely to present different or challenging concepts for fear of reprisal.
When asked if academic freedom was being compromised by the increase in precarious work, Dr Barnes responded:
Absolutely. Without question, if you are employed insecurely, you are more reticent to speak critically about your institution.
Health and wellbeing
Insecure employment has been linked to the deterioration of workers' health outcomes, including mental health. This is primarily due to the demanding, stressful, and insecure conditions under which they work, such as the unpredictability of university schedules and having to take on a lot of work in a short period of time.
Feelings of loss of control and vulnerability are common in academics in insecure working arrangements. Insecure work can erode self-confidence, amplify feelings of helplessness and contribute to a general loss of mental wellbeing. Dr Adamczyk told the committee:
We embody and internalise the emotional costs of these things. For some, it erodes a sense of self. I've seen this in my work as a casual rep. I get a lot of really disturbing emails about how people internalise this sense of shame and guilt at not hitting the social norms, conventions and progressions by which we mark ourselves in life, in society—career, family and all of those kinds of things.
Insecure work can be detrimental to a worker's physical wellbeing as well. Casual workers may work whilst they are sick as they cannot afford to forgo the money they would lose from taking time off, often exacerbating sicknesses and ultimately leading to further loss of work hours. Mx Morgan Jones, University of Sydney Casuals Network member, stressed that casualisation is a health concern, particularly for workers performing physical labour:
From a manual labour and physical job point of view, when we're working in those intense periods, it often leads to injuries. For example, at the end of last year, knowing I was coming up to a period of a month or two of no work, I tried to work a lot. I ended up with quite a bad back injury and it took two months to recover. It took my entire period of work to recover from that back injury. And, being casual, there's of course no paid leave or sick leave.
Why academics continue to work in the sector
It is pertinent to ask why academics might continue to work in the higher education sector, despite the seemingly overwhelming negative personal impacts. The committee heard that, for some, persistence in the sector was connected to love of the work and the students.
Another common reason was that external employment options were limited. Many academics do not otherwise find employment that utilises their academic skillset and experience, and further, when taking their skills to the private job market, they 'risk being viewed as over-qualified and undesirable'.
A majority indicated that they would prefer to be employed permanently within the sector. Of his own experience, Dr Doran said:
I would enjoy a permanent job. If anyone higher than me in a university is happy to give me one, I think I would jump at it. I don't choose to be a casual. I don't choose to be a fixed term. I don't choose to move from one year full-time to suddenly not having courses and becoming a casual and then the next year teaching more face-to-face hours now than I was when I was full-time and I'm now getting paid about half by virtue of being a casual staff member.
Insecure working arrangements are to the detriment of university students as well as employees. This relationship has long been forewarned; the 2012 Independent Inquiry into secure work in Australia reported that insecure work 'undoubtedly' posed a threat to the student experience.
The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), the regulatory agency for higher education, acknowledged that '[u]nusually high reliance on casual staff poses risks for the quality of the student experience'.
The NTEU argued that student-teacher relationships suffer as a result of insecure work:
Students seek to have an ongoing relationship throughout the course of their time at university so they can seek feedback on their work, so they've got someone who they can ask questions of, and that is undermined.
This is particularly true in core university courses with high student enrolment. Poor student-teacher ratios can result in first year university students having 'no ability to maintain contact with the people who taught them'. This also encourages excessive academic workloads and makes teachers more likely to be unable to provide satisfactory support services.
Casual teaching staff are often not given enough notice at the start of semester to adequately prepare sufficient learning materials for students. Dr Doran said:
I got my contract for this semester on a Tuesday to teach a course of 100 students, starting the next Monday. That is very little time to prepare something with some sort of quality.
The NTEU underscored that academia thrives when students are being taught by individuals undertaking active research in their discipline. Casual working arrangements do not facilitate this:
Casual academics are often stuck with high teaching loads, and that provides real impositions on their capacity to perform research, and research is really essential to informing people's teaching. Students learn more if they are taught by people who are able to research in the fields within which they're studying.
The NTEU argued that a decrease in academic learning quality raises questions regarding future sustainability of the sector and what affect this will have on future graduates:
A bigger fear is what it's doing to our graduates and our future graduates. From that point of view, I don't think it's sustainable. The problem is that they have detrimental consequences for the longer term sustainability of universities as places to develop minds and thought, and research as well. If we're inculcating young minds to essentially accept what the organisation that is educating them is doing, that won't work. I think it will create an environment and a society that is, as universities are doing, racing to the bottom in terms of short-term gain and lack of accountability.
Prior to 2020, the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) survey, which has surveyed undergraduates since 2012, had consistently reported stable levels of student satisfaction, despite slowly increasing casualisation. This suggests that, outside of COVID-19, there may be a limited relationship between casualisation in a university and teaching quality from the student experience.
However, student satisfaction has dropped markedly between 2019 and 2020. The QILT reported that among 565 829 students surveyed about 2020, 68.4 per cent on average 'were satisfied with their undergraduate education'—a ten percent drop from 2019.
The results of the QILT over time would appear to support testimony from workers that casual academics and teaching staff are likely over‑compensating—working hard to ensure the circumstances of their employment will have limited impacts on their students in the immediate short-term.
However, evidence suggests the loss of potentially talented and promising academics and teachers from the profession (especially those from less privileged backgrounds), due to punishing conditions in early years, has long-term impacts on the sector, on students, and for the nation's academic future.