The level of insecure work – in the form of casual and fixed-term jobs – has reached crisis levels in many parts of the Australian economy. We have come to associate poor employment
practices with the hospitality and franchise sectors, but few people are likely to realise that one of the worst industries for insecure work is now higher education.
Australian universities employ vastly more casual and fixed-term staff than staff in ongoing positions. Large numbers of our best researchers are employed on short-term contracts, while fully half of undergraduate teaching is performed by casual staff, many of whom need multiple jobs to survive.
Our analysis of the latest Workplace Gender Equality Agency data shows that 27 of the nation’s 42 universities have rates of casualisation exceeding 40 per cent, including 14 with a rate equal to or exceeding 50 per cent. The highest is the University of Wollongong, with 71 per cent, while the worst in Victoria is RMIT, with 63 per cent. Note that these are just the percentages of casual staff; add to this staff on fixed-term contracts and it is clear that the big majority of our universities have rates of insecure work that far exceed 50 per cent, and many exceed 70 per cent.
The idea that major public institutions with budgets in many cases over a billion dollars would be reliant to a considerable extent on casual workers to perform their central function – the teaching of the nation’s university students – should be a national disgrace.
The fact that many of those casuals are underpaid for the work they do only reinforces the extent to which our universities are now dependent on the same kind of exploitative labour practices that blight our economy more broadly, but especially in the hospitality industry. (At the same time, many vice-chancellors are now paid more than $1 million per year; it seems that universities are not immune to the problem of excessive CEO salaries too.)
We do not want to suggest that the need for job security is any more pressing for university staff than other workers, but it is surely the case that the creation and dissemination of knowledge are too important to our society today to treat the workers who create and disseminate it as disposable inputs in a production-line process.
It is remarkable that our universities manage to conduct such important and useful research and provide such great education with such precariously employed workforces. This is entirely a tribute to the dedication of the staff upon whose backs this success is built. But success built on precarious workers is itself precarious.
Universities surely have a responsibility to the long-term prosperity of the academic profession itself, and we all have an interest in the conditions under which research and education take place.
The universities’ exploitation of casual and fixed-term staff is an affront to academia, undermining academic freedom (who will express difficult opinions or explore controversial research directions if there is nothing to protect one from having one’s employment terminated?), and wasting a huge amount of our educational potential and resources.
This level of exploitation and failure to invest in the nation’s academic workforce will have long-term ramifications. If universities don’t change their employment practices soon, it will become harder to attract young, qualified people into the academic profession.
While it is unfashionable, in the company of university managers, to suggest that universities are anything more than businesses, we insist that they are much more. They are – or at least should be – repositories of cultural wisdom, generators of ground-breaking research and places where ideas and knowledge are communicated, shared and challenged. To do what, as a society, we ask of them, they should have workforces that are respected and valued, with staff who know whether they will have a job from one semester to the next.
We know that in some universities more than 80 per cent of staff under the age of 30 are insecurely employed. For organisations supposedly committed to educating the future engineers, scientists, artists, lawyers, doctors, nurses, journalists etc of our nation, they have a surprisingly low level of commitment to providing career opportunities for young academics.
For all the importance of universities, and the distinctive character of academic work, it also remains true that university staff are just like other workers. Like all workers they are surely entitled to paid leave if they get sick, parental leave if they have a child, and to have a reliable income upon which to plan their lives. Unfortunately, like too many Australian workers today, their insecure employment status gives them none of what should be our basic workplace rights.
Colin Long is Victorian secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union. Co-authored with Nic Kimberley and Fabian Cannizzo.