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THREAD on casual employment in Australian universities.

TL/DR: It’s complex.

Interested in the drivers of casualisation and what might be done about it? This thread is for you.

If you are a student at one of Australia’s universities, there’s a better than even chance that the person standing in front of the class is casually employed. This is no accident.
It is driven by a pervasive economic reality: casual staff are less costly to employ and they come with fewer strings attached.
The problem is real and it’s not going away. It’s because, dollar for dollar, universities have little choice. Many factors contribute to this.
As a starting point, permanent employees receive employer superannuation contributions at the rate of 17%, making university staff some of the most generously superannuated in Australia. For sessional teaching staff, superannuation of 9.5% is the norm.
Parental leave benefits for permanent staff are also among the most generous in Australia, with permanent staff typically enjoying paid parental leave of between 26 and 36 weeks. Sick leave entitlements for tenured academics can be up to 50 days per year (not a typo).
Casual staff don’t receive these benefits, nor do they have an entitlement to access to compassionate leave, sabbatical leave, promotion, study leave or salary packaging – all of which are costly.
Finally, casual staff are paid only for the teaching and teaching-related work that they do. A typical tenured academic might only be teaching for less than half of their time, with self-directed research and university service making up the balance of their role.
For casual academic staff, every dollar spent is a dollar spent on teaching; there’s no hidden ‘overhead’ for the other components of the academic role.
Taken as a whole, these factors make tenure very costly and they create within universities an implicit preference for casual employment. How has it come to this?
Conditions and benefits in Australia’s universities have been negotiated over many years through successive rounds of enterprise bargaining. A dispassionate assessment would have to conclude that casual staff have fared poorly in this process.
Are universities solely responsible for this state of affairs? No. It takes two to tango, and overwhelmingly university enterprise agreements are negotiated and recommended for approval by the National Tertiary Education Union.
It’s a hard truth, but for decades, both sides have given greater priority to improving benefits and conditions for permanent staff, leaving casual staff behind.
As a country, it is possible for us to change this over time, but there are no easy solutions.
Raising the conditions of casual staff so that they are at parity with permanent staff would be so costly as to drive many universities into structural deficit. It is neither practical nor achievable.
Alternatively, you could reduce the disincentive for universities to employ permanent staff by cutting back on their entitlements. Such an approach is unlikely to find much favour as monetary benefits, once given, are difficult to take away.
If we are to make progress, universities and unions need to look at alternative employment arrangements which recognise the need for sessional teaching but provide the people that do it with improved job security at an affordable cost.
Offering PhD students part-time, teaching-focused appointments of up to three years as they are transitioning into academia would be an improvement, yet most university enterprise agreements rule this out.
Some universities are experimenting with a new type of employment contract – called periodic employment – that provides regular casual staff with job security guarantees without the costs associated with tenure. That too is an option, and there may be others yet to be explored.
It’s unclear where the tipping point will be for casualisation in Australia’s universities. The raw economics so favour casual employment that minor adjustments to the current arrangements won’t have much of an impact.
If we are to turn it around, there is a need for bigger thinking that results in structural rather than incremental change in the way that university workforces are configured.

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