The current crisis in academic employment is the direct consequence of decisions made by previous governments over the past three decades or more. At its heart is the failure by either major party in office to provide adequate and secure funding for higher education, an attitude that stands in sharp contrast with European countries in particular. Improving this situation will require a permanent commitment by government to properly fund our universities, but equally it will require regulation to ensure that such funding is used for this purpose and not diverted by university managements to other, non-academic expenditure. Thus, the crisis needs to be addressed both as a fiscal and governance matter.
Specific issues of concern for APU include:
It is estimated that approximately 55% of all university academic staff are now in casual positions, and this process has been developing for the past 25 years. The dependence upon casual academic staff varies between universities, and in some cases is considerably greater than in other universities, but it is a problem in every institution. However, only Victoria currently requires universities to report their level of casual academic employment, but those universities have frequently not been fully reporting all casual academic employment, as they have been found to be calculating this out of semester when contracts have lapsed, thereby allowing them to return lower figures. All universities in Australia should be required to register their full casual academic employment every semester during periods when those contracts are current.
This form of employment prevents them from completing all of their tasks properly and effectively, in the best interests of their students; it is entirely inappropriate to the nature of their work and career opportunities, which are effectively non-existent; and it provides insufficient earned income to support themselves on a continuing basis, so that they are forced to take multiple jobs and/or rely in part upon Centrelink (and Centrelink then de facto helps to pay for our higher education delivery). It should be possible for all academics to be able to fully support themselves and their dependents from sufficient earned income in this profession alone.
Casual academics ordinarily complete the same tasks as full-time academic staff: they design, prepare, and deliver lecture courses, lead tutorials, grade assessment exercises, supervise other practical teaching activities, are expected to be regularly available to all of their students via email or phone, they are expected to remain up-to-date in the subjects they teach, which requires additional study and research time on their part for which they are not paid, and they have administrative responsibilities. As academics aspiring to advance their careers, they also need to be able to undertake and complete publishable research, to attend conferences, and fully participate in all usual academic activities. However, casual academics usually receive no financial assistance to participate in such tasks, unlike their full-time colleagues, tend not to be eligible for research funding, and as they are unable to earn sufficient income from their work over the entire 52-week year, with benefits, they do not have the time to complete such other activities while needing additional other employment and/or having to meet Centrelink requirements. There is no justification for this discrepancy if our universities expect such academics to be always available to them and for those academics to remain capable of delivering the highest possible quality of teaching. It is an inappropriate model.
Casual academics cannot obtain bank loans or a mortgage or afford to cover all of their costs of living under such employment arrangements, and this is not sustainable if they have no guarantee of transitioning into full-time continuing positions or at least of being adequately remunerated as casuals. The second interim report of the Senate Select Committee on Job Security (2021) examines this situation in detail; this report should be used by government to compel universities to address these problems and make changes.
Ideally, ALL casual academics who wish to be employed in full-time continuing positions should be able to; this would constitute approximately 80% of all existing casual academics. The existing arrangements and conditions for transitioning should be abolished, and instead all casual academics with a PhD should be immediately offered transition. Casual employment should not be treated as a trial period conditional for full-time employment.
Casual academics have also been subjected to systemic wage theft, or underpayment for their work across many if not all universities. This matter is still being resolved, although actual compensation is not fully calculated upon hours worked by every individual academic; it is only being calculated by standard contract formulae.
There should also be national standardised salary rates for casual academic work, so that these did not vary from one institution to another, as they currently do; they should be at professional rates and fully remunerate ALL work actually done, allowing for unexpected additional work not currently calculated in contractual arrangements, and including full preparation times for courses and supervision and other contacts with individual students. None of these should be subject to fixed formulae that do not allow for volumes of work outside of such formulae, including also administrative tasks. This amounts to wage theft.
The costs of employing casual academics save universities potentially $70,000/year or more each per academic relative to what those same academics would be earning if fully employed, and despite doing much the same work. Casuals can be so poorly paid that they do not earn enough to repay their student loans. If salary rates are supposed to reflect levels of education and training, and given that academics are among the most highly educated population groups in the country, this systemic, institutionalised poverty is unconscionable. Universities also depend upon a substantial number of unpaid or insufficiently remunerated honorary and adjunct academics who should similarly be properly employed and remunerated.
Full-time academic staff have been working an average of 60 hours/week while only being remunerated for less than 40 hours/week. This means that our entire higher education sector is predicated on wage theft. This situation has existed for well over a decade, and became worse during the pandemic, as academics were required to transfer face-to-face teaching to online delivery. A high percentage of this workload also consists in excessive and often unnecessary and repetitive administrative tasks, some of which could be abolished and others which could be undertaken by support staff. Such excessive workloads prevent academics from fulfilling their core job description, which is teaching and research, efficiently.
This permanent excessive workload combined with other unsatisfactory aspects of such employment is responsible for academics having an incidence of mental health problems of 50% for over a decade. This rate is 2.5 times higher than the national average and for other reported cohorts, such as ‘first responders’ and ADF personnel. These mental health problems also reduce academics’ performance and cost employers and the public purse, reducing ‘productivity’ and imposing preventable burdens upon health services.
Australia is currently witnessing national shortages of doctors, nurses, teachers and other professionals, which is caused by a refusal by governments to improve employment and working conditions in those sectors and to resolve legitimate, long-standing disputes. Universities have long been comparably toxic and intolerable, unsustainable working environments, and we are experiencing exactly the same shortages for the same reason that academics’ grievances have been ignored by both government and managements. There is an attrition rate among academics caused by these unresolved problems.
The existing practice of EBAs is not acceptable, and all academics should be guaranteed the same minimum employment and working conditions with benefits at any and all universities, and this should not be determined by negotiations that force them to make compromises that then adversely affect their ability to fulfil their job descriptions, or the quality of education for which they – not managers – are responsible for delivering, or which adversely affect their physical and mental health, or which undermine their basic academic freedom (including the freedom to voice reasonable criticisms of their own institution).
The decades-long hostility by governments and others towards academic tenure should also be reconsidered. Despite repeated enquiries (e.g. three under the Fraser government), no evidence has ever been produced to justify the elimination of tenure or to prove that academics are unproductive under sufficiently conducive conditions; expecting all full-time academics to maintain a steady output of high-quality research, which often takes months or years of work, under existing working conditions is entirely unrealistic. At the same time, it is usually overlooked that research is also essential as part of teaching itself, and that these two activities cannot and should not be conceived of as being entirely separate. Lecturers need time to do research in order to contribute to their teaching. Tenure remains common in other international university systems, with often full-time employment with benefits and entitlements leading to tenure, so that this prejudice, among others characteristic of Australia, is not normal. Academic work, both teaching and research, can only be effectively pursued with reasonable job security. Loss of job security adversely affects the quality of teaching and the volume of research output.
3. Increasing Staff-Student Ratios
In 1982, staff-student ratios calculated on full-time staff were 1:11. The average ratio is now 1:31.5, with half of our universities having worse ratios, sometimes considerably worse.
Government reviews of higher education in Australia have repeatedly recognised the importance of maintaining low ratios, but have not implemented effective means of ensuring that such ratios are established and maintained. As our student enrolments increase, maintaining good ratios is only possible by proportionately increasing full-time academic appointments commensurate with enrolment increases, but that has never happened, and governments have never provided sufficient additional funding or regulated universities’ budgetary allocation to ensure that the required money is spent only for this purpose.
The maintenance of low staff-student ratios is essential to the manageable distribution of the academic workload. More importantly, it is essential that every student receives the out-of-classroom support that they need and that lecturers can be available to them without having to reduce their other responsibilities. Students currently do not receive the support they need, either from sufficient lecturers being available or from other student support services, especially when they have completed high school without acquiring the skills and knowledge expected, which is then necessary in order to pursue higher education. Students have themselves complained of this. There is no means by which those deficits are being addressed.
Tutorials are an important assessment exercise, but equally, an opportunity for students to improve their understanding of their subjects in an informal setting. Tutorials cannot serve this purpose when they are larger than 12 students per session with a lecturer or tutor, but we currently see tutorial classes routinely numbering 30 or more students. This is pedagogically useless. Tutorials are often not even offered because departments do not have the funding to pay for them, this also detracts from the quality of education offered, and they are often replaced by less valuable forms of assessment.
Another means by which universities have cut costs is by employing people without a PhD to deliver lectures and tutorials. This has an inevitable effect on the quality of education they provide, and they cannot be considered as sufficiently qualified. It is acceptable to employ PhD students as tutors, as a means of providing them with some teaching experience, but the employment of anybody below that level in a teaching role is not acceptable.
4. Declining Course Coverage and International Standards.
Until the implementation of the Dawkins ‘reform’, Australian degrees included mandatory core course content and maintained a generally high quality of education. Since the 1990s, universities have continued to cut what had been mandatory core course content, to reduce overall content, to close and down-size departments, all primarily as cost-cutting measures because it means they are not employing academics to teach what should be taught, with the consequence that degrees offered here no longer reflect what we used to offer, that all professional qualifications no longer sufficiently cover all areas necessary for the practise of those professions respectively – including Medicine – and that our degree programmes do not reflect international best practice. It is common for other national university systems to mandate minimum content and standardised curricula, but we do not do this, and TEQSA does not have any model to enforce this. Professional accreditation bodies are also not maintaining necessary standards, and alone do not have the power to do so.
In order to replace what was once mandated core course content, to ensure that any given degree is sufficiently identical in content irrespective of which university awards it, including for all professional qualifications, to teach discipline areas commonly taught in other countries but not represented in Australian universities, to ensure that all students have opportunities to acquire additional skills required for their studies (e.g. foreign languages), and to bring our degree curricula into line with international practice, it would be necessary to dramatically increase the numbers of full-time academics employed in our universities on current enrolments.
5. Diminishing Investment in the Next Generation of Academics
It is normal practice and is of obvious benefit to a university system to recruit some international scholars, usually already established people of reputation who can tangibly contribute to our own education and research, but this should not leave qualified Australians unemployed (which does happen), nor should it excuse us from properly investing in our own academic staff and providing sufficient opportunities for all whom we need.
Australian universities should be capable of educating sufficient lecturers and researchers from our own population to replace natural attrition. We should not be dependent upon the recruitment of international scholars to fill gaps that we do not fill ourselves, and this should not be viewed as yet another cost saving expedient.
However, this would require universities to ensure sufficient secure career pathways for the next generation of academics across all discipline areas that the country will continue to need, from graduation with their PhDs through to legal retirement age without age or gender or other discrimination, assuming suitability and merit. We are not doing this, and we risk long-term dependence upon poaching graduates whom other counties have invested in to work in our universities. Early career PhD graduates do not usually have teaching experience and therefore need a period of mentoring.
6. False Narratives of Pandemic-Caused Austerity.
An estimated 17,000-40,000+ academics have lost their jobs since March 2020; this potentially represents up to one fifth of our entire national teaching workforce. This is despite domestic enrolments remaining stable, while the Labor government now proposes to increase those enrolments and looks forward to the return of international students.
It is false to assume that had the Morrison government extended the JobKeeper allowance to the university sector, no academic jobs would have been lost. They still would have been. A majority of our universities had sufficient assets and forward funding to have been able to retain all of those academics, and some have just posted substantial profits. Recent research has also found that the financial impact of the interruption of international student revenue was far less than originally forecast. Universities have a consistent practice of reducing academic staff costs by every possible means, they terminated possibly 3,000 academics in the decade before COVID-19, and the current redundancies should be seen not as having been caused by the pandemic but rather as an opportunity to further reduce academic expenditure under cover of the excuse of the pandemic. The Bradley Review 2008 already warned against over-dependence upon foreign student revenue as being unsustainable and at risk of any regional disruption, and it is a dependence that chronic government under-funding of the sector especially since the 1980s has forced universities to adapt to. The only viable solution to this problem is for the federal government to permanently commit to fully funding our universities, and to better regulating them to ensure that their principal outlay is invested in sufficient academic salaries, while reducing unnecessary extraneous spending by managements.
This mass redundancy of academics cannot be replaced. Neither major political party offered any proposal to retain those academics, many will now be permanently lost to the country, and they cannot be fully replaced in less than a decade – assuming anybody intended to replace them. Until our universities once more have an acceptable complement of lecturers, they cannot continue to provide a high quality of tertiary education, and they will not service Labor’s latest proposals.
All of the problems that exist in the university sector as outlined here also apply to the TAFE system, and it is currently not fit for purpose, either. Both TAFE colleges and universities will of course take as many students as they are offered and will award qualifications to them, but those qualifications are not a guarantee of any quality or that graduates have acquired the skills that such qualifications ostensibly attest to their having acquired. TEQSA and other instruments are currently not ensuring national quality and standards of courses and qualifications, which are partly conditional upon their employment of sufficient numbers of full-time continuing lecturers.
Labor should now consider immediately transitioning all casual and honorary/adjunct academics who wish to be into full-time continuing academic positions, and re-employing all available unemployed and redundant academics into universities under acceptable terms of employment.
7. Failures to Protect Academic Freedom of Speech
It is of considerable concern that Australian universities are terminating the employment of academics, often internationally award-winning researchers, because those academics have expressed critical opinions of their universities, and that any public dissent or criticism entails risk of losing one’s employment; further, that universities now operate close and intrusive surveillance of their employees. The 2019 French Review of Freedom of Speech in Higher Education proposed a national code of freedom of academic speech which the Morrison government then accepted, but which has not been fully and consistently implemented and respected. That code should also allow academics to publicly express their concerns about the conduct of university management. Attempting to silence them by making them redundant is the same as silencing any other whistle-blower, it is not determined by any criminal activity, it denies academics any credibility or expertise despite their being entrusted with precisely that expertise and credibility when teaching and researching, and it damages the international reputation of our universities. The behaviour of Australian universities now places us on an equal footing with (other) authoritarian regimes.
Universities should be places of free and open respectful discussion, where such freedom of speech is practised as a model for the wider community, as well as ensuring genuine democracy in this country. Universities are not ‘businesses’ whose ‘brand’ is so important that any perceived reputational damage to that ‘brand’ should be rewarded with redundancy, and persistence in this behaviour is incompatible with what our universities should be.
There are now dozens of such cases occurring in this country, typically perpetrated under other guises such as restructuring, and government must intervene to stop such practices and reinstate all such affected academics. This is another, often covert means by which academic employment is undermined and remains permanently insecure, and voices of dissent are silenced. Academic appointments and performance should properly be decided by peer academics, only on the basis of academic achievement and merit, and should therefore be separate from all decisions by management.
8. Undermined Public Mission in our Public Universities.
37 Australian universities are defined as ‘public’ universities while 4 are considered ‘private’, but insofar as those 4 universities also receive government funding and provide education and research important to the country in the same way that the remaining 37 universities do, they are not fully ‘private’. Universities obviously provide education required for a wide range of professional and other employment, and are regarded as sites of research expected to benefit our economy. However, this is not the principal meaning of a ‘public’ university, which is the possession of the entire community and which should serve the entire community not merely in the sense usually expected of a university, but also and equally as a national public resource of knowledge, collective memory, national identity, and culture.
This is the usual understanding of a university in most western societies, where universities are certainly not conceived exclusively or disproportionately as servants of national economies, and they are publicly funded for that larger purpose. In international comparison, the prevailing Australian conception is an anomaly, not normative.
This means that universities should also maintain full capacity to educate the general public including enrolled students, in every area of their culture, including all of the Arts, Humanities, and the Social Sciences, irrespective of whether or not this directly contributes to national economic priorities. Such an Arts & Humanities education does qualify many for careers in those discipline areas as well as teachers, public servants, psychologists, and many others, and they therefore do contribute to our economy in multiple ways. Yet society is more than an economy. That cultural knowledge, like all STEM knowledge, exists in the brains of individual academics, and in order to preserve their knowledge as a publicly available asset, they cannot be hired and fired according to a ‘demand’ principle; once fired, they are lost and not replaceable, they typically do not find another academic position here, and they cease to be available to the community. They, too, need to be permanently employed. International elite universities and research centres, which Australia does not have, are not solely dedicated to national economic priorities, but are instead dedicated to the pursuit and transmission of ALL knowledge, regardless of its ostensible immediate usefulness or application, and do so in a balanced way not reflected by current Australian policy and practice. They employ and fund academics across all discipline areas without such distinctions, they do not overburden them with workloads that prevent that research and teaching activity, and they value the contributions that they all make, and it is that which makes them world-leading and ‘elite’. European, American and British research centres offer substantial research funding or permanent careers to scholars engaged in numerous disciplines not represented at any Australian university, and unlikely to ever attract ARC funding. This discrepancy illustrates just how different attitudes and practice are in Australia compared with other comparable western nations.
Our universities therefore need to be re-conceived, and employment and career paths need to be improved in order to ensure that our universities remain a permanent public resource across all discipline areas.
It should be noted that the economic priority agenda of our universities was established as part of the Hawke government’s reforms. In more than 30 years, that agenda has consistently failed to achieve its aim of a strong, globally competitive, developed and diversified economy. It has failed not primarily because of our universities, which have been entirely capable of generating useful research outcomes despite all of the hurdles placed in the path of academics: that failure is due to government and business community refusal to fully invest in the onshore exploitation of such outcomes and innovation. No amount of government tinkering with our universities will resolve this failure: government and the private sector must be willing to spend venture capital to this end, and until they are, we will never have a developed and diversified and globally competitive or self-sufficient economy.
Academics for Public Universities (APU)
 “Unis offered as few as 1 in 100 casuals permanent status in 2021. Why aren’t conversion rules working for these staff?” — https://theconversation.com/unis-offered-as-few-as-1-in-100-casuals-permanent-status-in-2021-why-arent-conversion-rules-working-for-these-staff-172046