Australian universities have been banned from employing staff on limited-term contracts except in special circumstances.
The Australian Industrial Relations Commission has ruled that academics and general staff employed on contracts should be given permanent appointments. Up to 10,000 untenured staff could be affected.
Vice-chancellors described the ruling as "draconian, unprecedented and unnecessarily restrictive and inflexible". They warned that jobs would be lost if they were forced to comply.
The vice-chancellors' key advisory body, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, is considering an appeal to the High Court seeking to overturn the ruling on the grounds that the commission exceeded its powers.
Under a Workplace Relations Act passed by the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard, the commission does not have the power to limit the number or proportion of employees that an employer may employ in a particular type of employment. The AHEIA believes this excludes the commission from restricting universities in offering contract employment.
Given the implications of the AIRC decision for workers in other fields - and the commission's assessment of its own powers - it is possible the federal government will join the vice-chancellors if they decide on a High Court challenge.
AHEIA executive director Russell Blackford said it was difficult to see how the AIRC decision fell within the act. He said the award would have serious implications for universities and that many staff could lose their jobs.
The award bans universities from employing staff on a fixed-term contract unless the position is for a specified time, is not funded from fees or recurrent government grants, is a research-only post, or refers to an employee replacing another on leave.
Up to 30,000 of the 80,000 university employees do not have security of tenure. Estimates vary, but possibly 10,000 academics and other staff are casuals, and 20,000-25,000 are on fixed-term contracts. Under the AIRC decision covering non-continuing employment, most senior managers employed on performance-based contracts would have to be offered tenured posts.
Monash University vice-chancellor David Robinson said this would reduce institutions' flexibility in meeting the challenges imposed by budgetary restraints.
The commission rejected an argument put by the National Tertiary Education Union that casual staff employed for substantial and continuing periods should also be offered permanent employment. But it warned that if casual, rather than proper part-time, appointments were used in place of fixed-term contracts, it would consider granting the union's claims.