Pandemic achieving long-sought decasualisation of Australian universities

‘Personal crisis’ may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for some insecurely employed staff

June 5, 2020
jobseeker unemployed out of work casual
Source: iStock

Covid-19 may succeed where academics’ constant pleading has failed, by ending Australian universities’ mass use of casually employment.

Casuals are first in the firing line as institutions jettison staff to navigate pandemic-induced revenue downturns. Southern Cross University is the latest to flag job losses, with chancellor Nick Burton Taylor saying it would be “improper and misleading” to suggest otherwise.

“There is no white knight coming down the road to our rescue,” he said, following an extraordinary meeting of the university council.

Universities Australia expects its members to incur revenue shortfalls of up to A$4.6 billion (£2.5 billion) this year, with individual institutions projecting steeper losses. Times Higher Education has confirmed 25 universities’ modelling of their coronavirus-induced revenue downturns in 2020, with mid-range estimates totalling about A$4 billion – averaging A$160 million each – and worse to come next year.

Casual staff numbers have risen more than twice as quickly as full-timers over the past decade, with casuals thought to predominate on a headcount basis, but universities have not divulged how many have been forced out of work during the crisis.

The risk for casuals has been exacerbated by most universities’ refusal to adopt the jobs protection framework agreed with the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). The latest is Charles Sturt University, whose vice-chancellor Andrew Vann led negotiations with the union.

Professor Vann said the “complex” deal would have involved “compromise not acceptable to the university”. He said the NTEU’s restrictions around forced redundancies would have created too much uncertainty “compared to the known mechanisms of our existing enterprise agreement”.

University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones said it was ironic that universities were being “forced to decasualise” after ignoring constant demands that they do so.

“Now may be a good time for universities to refocus around providing permanent high-quality employment for as many people as possible, and not rely so heavily on casual and fixed term contracts.”

He said the odds of universities permanently abandoning their reliance on casuals were “small”, but “hopefully we’ve learnt a lesson at least for a short generation”.

Dr Babones said that while losing casual work would be a “personal crisis” for countless academics, some might be better off in the long run.

“This is an opportunity for people to re-examine their careers,” he said. “It is very tempting to live from one limited-term contract to another, but perhaps not very good for your long-term prospects. If you have to be unemployed, this is the best possible time. JobSeeker benefits are higher than ever [and] you won’t be personally blamed when you’re unemployed as part of a national crisis.”

David Shoebridge, a Greens member of the New South Wales (NSW) parliament, said reducing casualisation was “the one big call” across the sector. “Casualisation produces less financial security for staff, but it also produces less independence in our research [and] teaching.

“If we want to have genuinely independent higher education institutions, it means a commitment to end the casualisation of university staff.”

NTEU NSW secretary Michael Thomson said the lack of clarity around casual staff job losses was inexcusable, with thousands destined to go at some institutions.

Mr Thomson said the reliance on casuals to undertake predictable roles was also inexcusable. “Enrolments happen. Student progress happens. Graduation happens. The library continues. There’s no need for this false casual life.”

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