Australian academics have stepped up their campaign over the increasing employment of casual staff.
Less than 60 per cent of academic staff are in tenured positions, down from more than 80 per cent in the early 1980s, and academics have challenged university hiring practices in the federal Industrial Relations Commission.
But at a preliminary hearing late last month, the vice chancellors' industrial arm, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, lost the first battle in what is shaping up to be a bitter war.
The IRC rejected arguments that the issue of casual employment was a matter for individual institutions. It agreed to hear claims by the National Tertiary Education Union covering three areas: wages and conditions for casual academics, employment of language educators, and employment of non-permanent staff.
The AHEIA argues that if the commission upholds the union's claims there will be a massive increase in costs. It says the union has clearly decided now is a good time to pre-empt any staffing reforms that may result from a federal inquiry into university management.
The union, however, has expressed alarm at the stance taken by the AHEIA in its submission to the management review. NTEU president Carolyn Allport described the association's recommendations, which call for a severe limit to be placed on tenure, as a "package of draconian and divisive reductions in employment security for academic staff".
Dr Allport said the package would fuel industrial conflict within universities and that "despite disingenuous AHEIA claims to the contrary", the recommendations would reinforce gender inequities. She also questioned how representative the association was, arguing that the union had encountered few individual v-cs or university councils prepared to support its position.
But the association said the union's call for fixed-term academics to be appointed to tenured posts in certain specified circumstances could add more than 40 per cent to a university's wages bill. Many institutions with large numbers of part-time students would not be able to meet course costs.
"In most institutions, this sort of increase would not provide job security but, instead, would put even tenured jobs in jeopardy," the association says in a commentary sent to vice chancellors. "At best, it would increase the workload of tenured academics."
In the commission, the NTEU accused universities of ignoring industrial awards and refusing to meet tenure ratios that were agreed to four years ago. A spokesman said the union was forced to go to the commission because attempts to negotiate justice for academics had met a brick wall with the employers.
The union was not opposed to the employment of casual staff and it accepted that postgraduates in particular could benefit from having access to non-tenured jobs. The real issue was whether ongoing positions in teaching and research, with no set duration, should be regarded as temporary.
The NTEU claim also seeks substantially higher rates of pay for casual academics performing non-traditional tutoring, supervising or teaching roles. It says new rates should be set down for a number of defined academic duties not listed in any award, and a new salary structure and tenure requirements for language teachers devised.
Under the claims, casual academics employed for three consecutive semesters would have permanent fractional appointments. The AHEIA says this could up casual staff salary bills by more than 40 per cent. "Education is becoming a competitive business," the association says. "It is becoming possible for universities to use components of courses produced elsewhere. Institutions which have the flexibility to take full advantage of such opportunities will be those which prosper."
AHEIA advocates told the commission it was not appropriate for national awards to be made for casual academics. The commission rejected these arguments and set dates for formal hearings to begin late this month.