Two senior Australian academics have endorsed the United States model of semester-based appointments, where staff are engaged for nine months a year and may then undertake consultancies or be paid by the university for teaching or research over the summer semester.
Don McNicol, president of the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, welcomed a system in which academics would be contracted to work a fraction of the year, leaving them free to do what they wished with the remainder, while universities would have the opportunity to buy extra time from staff for particular needs.
The AHEIA is the industrial arm of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee. Opening the association's annual conference in Melbourne last week, Professor McNicol said if academics currently availed themselves of all the various types of leave on offer, a university would get only six months of their time a year. A semester-based employment system would take a more realistic account of this.
Professor McNicol said universities paid their academics more and more money "on the basis of their wisdom and expertise" regardless of institutional need. But rarely was an academic's salary reduced for doing less work or doing it less well.
Peter Coaldrake, deputy vice-chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology, referred to a shift towards "more nomadic and independent employment patterns for academics".
Professor Coaldrake said some Australian universities were already moving to academic calendars based on two publicly-funded semesters plus a third semester over summer - the latter predominantly based on students paying full tuition fees.
If applied, the arrangement might allow universities to retain staff by allowing them to top up their salaries in an environment where the public purse would not do so, said Professor Coaldrake.
It might also promote better connections between academics and external agencies by encouraging consultancy work over the non-semester period. And it could allow universities to pay their best researchers over the summer period.