Covid ‘claims up to 36K casual jobs’ in Australia

Analysts say industrial solutions must be adopted to wean universities off their dependence on casual staff

November 26, 2020
Work contract casual
Source: iStock

The pandemic has cost up to 36,000 casual Australian university staff their livelihoods, according to former administrators who say the sector must kick its addiction to insecure employment.

A Melbourne seminar has heard that “ethical” objections to casualisation are not the only problem with a model that has been “festering and unresolved” for more than 30 years.

Consultant Liz Baré said that casualisation raised issues akin to those exposed by the security workers who were blamed for sparking Melbourne’s disastrous second wave of Covid-19 after they caught the virus while supervising quarantined travellers and spread it by moonlighting in second jobs.

Ms Baré said that an unknown number of casual academics were “gig economy” workers with jobs in multiple institutions. That raised issues of risk – “particularly the risk of your own intellectual property”.

Ms Baré, a former human resources boss at the University of Melbourne, was addressing a webinar hosted by Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute where she is an honorary senior fellow. She said that casualisation had a “big impact” on tenured staff because it turned mid-level academics into managers of “vast casual groupings”.

Nevertheless, Australian universities were completely dependent on casuals to deliver undergraduate programmes in core disciplines such as science, education, health and the arts.

Strategic adviser Teresa Tjia said that while there was no official headcount of casual university employees, an estimated 146,000 had worked in Australian universities last year. Between 20,000 and 36,000 of them had vanished so far this year, with the pandemic purging up to one in four casual jobs.

That compared with the loss of 6,900 permanent jobs, she said, although the academic union estimated a higher figure of 10,000.

Consultant Janet Beard said that casual numbers had started expanding in 1988 when the Higher Education Contract of Employment Award imposed limits on fixed-term employment for teaching roles. Ms Baré advocated the removal of that “barrier” as the first step in solving the casualisation problem.

“The second step is to develop a new form of contract that pays people for a year, but recognises that there are uneven work periods across the year,” she said, adding that some universities had already adopted such contracts. Such an approach, while not ideal, “would certainly be better than what we have now”.

Ms Baré said that universities should also update casual rates of pay that had evolved from 1970s practice. “They relate to a model of one-hour lecture, one-hour tutorial, marking and a few specialised forms of supervision,” she said.

That structure was “insufficient” in an era of online teaching and had probably contributed to Australian universities’ widely reported underpayment problems. “I don’t believe it’s a major conspiracy to defraud – I suspect it’s more that the work people are doing doesn’t fit the rate structure.”

Changes in the nature of university work also explained the transformation in professional staff roles, with low-level jobs all but disappearing while the number of middle- and senior-level positions expanded. Ms Baré said while this partly reflected outsourcing and the elimination of data entry roles, it mostly stemmed from the changing complexity of management.

She said that the professional staff of 1990s universities “would not cope” in today’s world. “Universities have become big businesses. The way that professional staff have to work to support that big business has changed quite markedly, as has the extreme diversification of professional staff roles.”

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