Shift towards precarity predicted in US and Australia, but not UK

Major new survey of world university leaders finds widespread acceptance that casualisation will increase

September 20, 2018
Source: Alamy

Two-thirds of university leaders in North America and Australia believe more academics will be working on short-term or insecure contracts by 2030, but British vice-chancellors anticipate a reversal of the trend, according to a major new survey.

Almost 200 vice-chancellors and presidents took part in the inaugural Times Higher Education University Leaders Survey, one of the largest ever polls of leaders in global higher education, having their say on topics such as undergraduate teaching, research funding and the impact of technological change.

The survey is published ahead of the THE World Academic Summit at the National University of Singapore on 25-27 September.

Asked about casualisation, 46 per cent of respondents agreed that a greater proportion of academics would be on short-term or casual contracts by the end of the next decade. Thirty-one per cent of leaders predicted that the proportion would decrease.

However, there were significant regional variations: 69 per cent of Australian heads believed that casualisation would increase, while only 8 per cent disagreed. Sixty-five per cent of North American presidents predicted a rise in short-term and casual contracts, with 14 per cent in disagreement.

In contrast, only 8 per cent of UK vice-chancellors who took part in the poll agreed that insecurity would intensify, and 72 per cent predicted a shift towards more stable employment practices.

Opinion was more evenly split among European university leaders: 36 per cent predicted more casualisation, while 45 per cent anticipated less. Asian heads of institution were split 43 per cent in favour and 26 per cent against.

The findings come amid growing concern about the impact of casualisation on academics’ well-being. In one recent survey of more than 2,600 Canadian sessional staff, 69 per cent of respondents said that the contingent nature of their work was a considerable source of stress, and 52 per cent said that it affected their ability to make long-term plans such as whether to have children or buy a house.

One Australian vice-chancellor who responded to THE’s survey argued that a shift towards short-term and casual contracts was inevitable because “universities will need to be able to adapt their workforce” to shifting student and industry demands.

But Jeannie Rea, president of Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union, said that vice-chancellors had lost sight of their public good missions.

“The fact that seven out of 10 Australian vice-chancellors believe that the use of casual employment at their institutions will increase over the next 10 years is not only an indictment on the lack of public investment in our public universities, but shows that vice chancellors have little regard for their staff [and] students,” she said.

Even leaders who predicted an increase in casualisation were fearful about its impact. One North American public university head said that “if short-term or casual contracts become the norm, it will be considerably more difficult to attract qualified individuals to our faculty positions”.

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