Contract and casual workers in Australian universities have borne the brunt of revenue losses and funding cuts to higher education and research. When the government refused to provide JobKeeper to public universities during the COVID pandemic, thousands of academics on contracts got the boot.
My research, with Nerida Spina, Simon Bailey, Mhorag Goff and Kate Smithers, aims to understand and support the working lives of academics in insecure employment. We have solutions for both governments and universities to reduce the burden of widespread precarity.
This precarity doesn’t just affect individuals. Insecurity, systematic underpayment and a lack of support for contract and casual workers in the sector are eroding Australian intellectual capital. This impacts the education and employment opportunities of our students.
The lack of secure employment opportunities for academics is resulting in a “brain drain” as researchers take their skills to international markets. As science PhD candidate Miro Astore calculated last month, the government has invested a million dollars to educate him but he’s about to leave Australia and might never return.
It is true casualisation and precarious employment conditions have been commonplace in academia for decades. However, we are now aware of the endemic wage theft from casual and contracted university staff. This week the tertiary education regulator TEQSA again warned universities about underpaying staff.
Despite recent legislation aimed at transitioning casuals who work regular hours into ongoing roles, fewer than 1% of casual academics have been converted to ongoing, secure employment. One casual tutor at Flinders University, who had taught for almost 16 years during teaching periods, this week lost his bid in the Fair Work Commission to be converted to a permanent part-time position. The result of this test case is the final straw for many in the sector.
What can government do?
With these pressures in mind, the next government must address this crisis in Australian higher education. Our research reveals necessary government reforms to stop the leaking of talent as well as the practical steps universities can take to support precarious academics and improve the quality of degree programs for all Australians.
The next government must:
urgently lift higher education funding
hold universities to account for underpaying staff
amend legislation covering the transition of casuals to ongoing employment.
What can universities do?
At a local level, universities can quickly address three key issues.
1. Receiving grant funding and publishing your research is key for all academics.
Grants are the heart of research, allowing researchers to build new knowledge. Australian Research Council (ARC) grants are the biggest prize of all. Yet being on fixed-term contracts often excludes academics from applying for these grants.
Academics in ongoing roles need to push back against institutional practices that marginalise the contribution of contract researchers.
2. One of the biggest influences on how researchers experience contract work is their direct manager.
Our research reveals the importance of managers having regular open and honest conversations with academics about the duration of contracts and supporting them in their research and teaching work. This work is the central role of the university.
3. Casual and fixed-term staff often miss out on training and conferences that can help them build their skills.
Academics are generally not paid when attending professional development. So our university educators are having to use their own time, and possibly miss out on paid work, to stay on the cutting edge for our students.
While university staff can – and should – push back against precarious work, higher education policies wield the ultimate influence. And higher education policy has been largely absent from this election campaign.
So what have the parties offered?
Labor’s headline higher education policy is A$481.7 million in funding for an additional 20,000 university places for students over the next two years. It also offered extra funding for universities that offer courses in “national priority areas like clean energy, advanced manufacturing, health and education, or where there are skills shortages”.
Labor has promised to reform the sector through an Australian universities accord. There is very little detail, however, about what this might look like.
The Coalition’s higher education policy centres on research commercialisation and building collaboration between industry and universities. The cornerstone of this policy was a promise of $362 million over five years for six “Trailblazer Universities”. These are pegged as partnerships between industry partners, small-to-medium enterprises and universities to “supercharge their research translation and commercialisation capabilities”.
Both sides of politics promised more places at university for young Australians. Yet neither released any plans to support those who will be teaching them. Their silence on how universities can provide high-quality education to these extra students speaks volumes.
If these policies are really about supporting educational and employment opportunities for young Australians, surely the government needs to consider what happens to these students in universities. An essential starting point is to ensure all academics – regardless of their employment status – are supported and paid appropriately for their work.
Jess Harris does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.