Worse redundancy terms ‘key trade-off for more permanent jobs’

Australia’s post-Covid employment ‘circuit breaker’: casual professors, a revised 40/40/20 split and no more 18-month payouts

February 21, 2021
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Australian university staff have been urged to relinquish “generous” redundancy provisions, modify their research time expectations and allow teachers to be hired on fixed-term contracts, as part of a “circuit breaker” to shield the sector from casualisation and Covid-induced carnage.

And the sector should create recognition structures that allow casual teachers to attain the rank of professor, according to a group of former senior administrators of Victorian universities.

In a paper published by the University of Melbourne, the group offers proposals to tackle “entrenched” workforce problems that have bedevilled the sector for decades. “Many of [these] recommendations would be difficult to effect in normal times…[but] the Covid-19 pandemic provides a rare opportunity for review and reform,” the paper says.

The paper targets “impediments” that the authors blame for contributing to a more than 50 per cent surge in the number of casuals over 10 years. Sector-standard redundancy payouts of up to 18 months’ salary are “beyond community norms” and skew hiring patterns towards casuals who can be “severed at will”, it says.

Few other Australian workers attract retrenchment payouts of more than a year. Co-author Elizabeth Baré said that the redundancy arrangements at universities had originated as a mid-1990s trade-off for tenure rules that, at the time, made it all but impossible to dismiss academics.

“The world’s changed since then,” said Ms Baré, an honorary fellow with the LH Martin Institute. “The factors that led to those sorts of provisions are not applicable to the world of higher education today.”

She said that casualisation had been a mounting problem in the sector for about 25 years. Attempts to address it, such as enterprise agreement clauses that allowed long-standing casuals to apply for conversion to full- or part-time work, had made very little difference.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) said that it agreed with several suggestions, including improved career paths for professional staff, better employment conditions for casuals and less reliance on a “gig economy” workforce.

But NTEU president Alison Barnes dismissed the suggestion that redundancy provisions had hampered universities from managing their staffing levels. “As we’ve seen particularly over the past six to 12 months, this hasn’t been the case,” she said. Universities Australia believes that more than 17,000 university staff lost their jobs last year, with some estimates putting the toll even higher.

Dr Barnes called for a “greater focus” on casual conversion and said that more fixed-term employment would not address the “fundamental issue” that many staff were “effectively permanent casuals”.

She warned that ongoing jobs could give way to fixed-term positions while casual employment levels remained unchecked. “The drive for greater ‘flexibility’ in higher education has resulted in the shameful situation of 70 per cent of the current workforce being in insecure jobs.”

The Melbourne paper calls for more flexibility around the “40/40/20” workload model for allocating teaching, research and community engagement time. While “fair and equitable allocation of duties is important”, the authors say, overly “prescriptive” approaches limit universities’ capacity to adapt “in a dynamic environment”.

Other suggestions include a system allowing part-time casual teachers to be recognised for exceptional performance. Current casual pay rates are set at tutor or lecturer level, but the paper argues for a more flexible approach that – theoretically – could see casual teachers badged as professors.

Promotion systems exist for honorary staff, “especially where an academic title is important to professional standing”, the paper notes. “Such processes might be adapted to enable casual teachers to be appointed or promoted to an academic rank based on merit and receive commensurate remuneration.”

The group’s proposals have emerged against the backdrop of a controversial bill to amend the Fair Work Act. Changes would include a new definition of casual employment and an automatic casual conversion entitlement – measures that Canberra says would reduce confusion for employers while boosting safety net provisions for workers.

The NTEU contends that the new definition would allow casual status to be determined by employers rather than “objective criteria” such as work patterns or duration. This would make it easier “to entrench insecure employment as the permanent feature of their workforces”, the union told a Senate committee examining the bill.

It said that the casual conversion entitlement, only available after 12 months of work, would be of “no value” to university staff working semester by semester. Other concerns include watered-down penalties for “wage theft” – an issue that also worries students. The committee is due to report on 12 March.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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