Cut funding for universities with too many casuals, say senators

Australian inquiry also recommends new national strategy, top-up funding and better union entry rights

October 20, 2021
Sunrise Skyline at Commonwealth Bridge in Canberra
Source: iStock

Australian universities would risk losing their government funding unless they employed more staff on a secure basis, under recommendations from a long-running Senate committee inquiry.

Universities would also be required to publish detailed reports on the composition of their staffing, including casual employees and external contractors, and to design a sector-specific system for shifting casual and fixed-term staff into permanent positions.

The government would also legislate improved entry rights for trade unionists to inspect institutional employment records without notice, following revelations of “systemic wage theft” that has reportedly left 21 universities under investigation for underpaying their casuals.

Canberra would also develop a national higher education funding strategy covering the next four years, and allocate extra annual funding until the strategy has been developed and implemented.

The proposals are outlined in a 343-page report on the economic and social impacts of insecure employment in aged and disability care and the civil service, as well as in higher education. The report says cost-cutting and risk mitigation by university executives has left the sector with “one of the highest levels of precarious employment in Australia”, inflicting “untold damage” on the lives of staff and “significant” harm to education provision.

“The issues affecting the higher education sector since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic are not new, but rather a continuation of established structural issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” the report says. “Academics, researchers, non-academic staff and students have all suffered as a result of a crisis that was – if not entirely preventable – certainly foreseeable.”

The new funding strategy would address the “real” costs of teaching and research, the need for more stable revenue streams and the government’s role in “mandating and enforcing secure and fair employment practices”.

The report says public funding should be contingent on universities establishing and reporting against “publicly available targets” for increasing permanent employment. The targets would be established in consultation with industry experts, workers and the academic union, with the government stepping in “to impose meaningful but achievable funding-linked targets” if casualisation levels had not fallen within three years.

Committee member Mehreen Faruqi said wage theft at universities was “out of control” and “inextricably linked” to casualisation. “An entire generation of casual academics has been hung out to dry,” she said. “The report provides some very useful recommendations.”

A dissenting report from the committee’s two government members dismisses the inquiry as “a staged political farce” to discredit Canberra’s workplace relations management. “The rate of casual employees has remained stable at around 25 per cent for more than two decades leading into the pandemic,” it says.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said the report was unlikely to give rise to much action in higher education or any other sector. He said casualisation was a “massive industrial issue” and the government would not take its lead from “an inquiry which doesn’t have any legal force”.

Professor Norton said casualisation in universities resulted partly from their seasonal operations and union demands that academics be allocated paid research time. “Insecure employment is partly due to separating out teaching and research funding, and putting the two on different growth trajectories, interacting with the industrial culture which is very reluctant to accept teaching-only career jobs,” he said.

“Until you can change at least one of those two things, casualisation is the only viable strategy for a university.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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