More than a quarter of Australia's 40,000 academics live in a constant state of uncertainty over job security.
They are still employed on short-term contracts despite a ban on the practice by the Industrial Relations Commission 18 months ago. This is because the commission did not order universities to review the position of academics already employed on contract.
There was also no requirement for universities to undertake "conversion" rounds, in which the position of each contract employee is assessed to determine if it should be made continuing and, if so, whether the incumbent should be appointed or the post advertised.
"The award did provide for dispute-resolution procedures that could go before the commission if a contract appointment appeared to be in violation of the award," said a National Tertiary Education Union spokesman. "Or a dispute could be the subject of action in the federal court. The point, however, is that there are differences between cases arising as a result of the award and those occurring through conversion."
Many academics become aggrieved when a university undertakes a conversion process and they fail to be appointed after the position is advertised externally, the spokesman said. But this was different from the more numerous cases where an academic was offered a contract in breach of the award.
How universities tackle conversion of contract appointments also differs markedly between institutions. Many decided to review all contract positions to determine which were to be made continuing - or eliminated - while others are waiting until each contract expires before taking action.
"Staff can also fall between the cracks in the way universities approach contract conversions," the spokesman said. "Some institutions say that only staff with five years' service are eligible to take up a continuing position. Others say the person must have been awarded the original contract after the post was advertised, and some apply both conditions - service and external competition."
Universities could also decide not to renew a contract so the position disappears. Or a department may decide to convert the job to a casual position on the grounds of falling enrolments or budget cuts.
The NTEU had asked for an award covering both fixed-term contract and casual staff, but the commission only made an order on contract appointments. If a contract expires and the position is not advertised but turned into a casual appointment, the academic involved has no recourse.