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Universities fail to move casual staff on to permanent contracts

Written by: John Ross
Published on: 1 Nov 2021

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Less than 1 per cent of the tens of thousands of sessional staff at Australian universities have benefited from legislation to shepherd long-term casuals into permanent employment, figures suggest.

The data emerged as 60 per cent of Australia’s public universities were being scrutinised over “systemic” underpayment of casuals.

Outrage over casualisation in the sector is reaching fever pitch, with the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) pressing new “wage theft” claims against universities, one of which has already repaid staff millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee says the sector needs a tailored system for “casual conversion” after new arrangements barely dented a sessional workforce estimated to number some 100,000 people – although reliable figures are unavailable, with casual staff tallies at some universities varying as much as eightfold depending on the data source.

Many academics say they have worked casually for a decade or more. The federal government ostensibly intended to help such people when it changed the Fair Work Act to make employers grant ongoing employment to their long-term casuals.

To be eligible, casuals must have been on staff for at least 12 months and working regular, ongoing patterns of hours for the past six – terms that rule out most casual academics, because of the sessional nature of their work.

Figures from the few universities prepared to share data show that of more than 18,500 casuals assessed for conversion, just 162 qualified. At least eight institutions, some with thousands of casuals, offered permanent employment to 10 or fewer.

The Senate’s Select Committee on Job Security said that the changes had done little for university staff. “The amendments are unlikely to bring many – if any – casual workers in the sector closer to secure work,” it noted in an interim report on precarity in publicly funded jobs.

It called on the federal education department to work with universities, staff and the NTEU to design a “sector-appropriate” system of casual and fixed-term conversion that recognised real work patterns in higher education.

The committee also blamed manipulation of “piece rates”, a long-standing payment mechanism for marking, assessment, tutorials and lectures, for an explosion of “wage theft” overwhelmingly affecting casuals. “Exploitative workforce practices such as piece rates have become the contractual norm,” the report says.

The NTEU said 21 universities were either under investigation or auditing their own books for underpayments. The Fair Work Ombudsman said that it was investigating 14 universities over “large-scale systemic underpayment”.

Ombudsman Sandra Parker blamed piece rates, misclassification of employees, “poor governance and management oversight practices”, bad record keeping and a lack of centralised human resources for these “very serious” transgressions.