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Let’s not keep it casual: the pain and perils of insecure university work

As the summer break burns on, many university casuals are breaking sweats – not just because of searing temperatures. Karina Luzia, co-founder of blog CASA: Casual, Adjunct, Sessional staff and Allies in Australian Higher Education, says the Christmas period is “particularly terrible” for university casuals as they aren’t paid for three months.

Individually irksome

Though casuals’ strife is more intense from December through February, it persists year round. Dr Samuel Douglas, a casual philosophy academic at the University of Newcastle, said being a casual can potentially affect the quality of one’s teaching.

“Sometimes as a casual employee, it’s harder to … be across current research particularly [as] you only have access to all the journals behind paywalls when you’re on contract…”

Though a 2016 LH Martin Institute report found no evidence linking casualisation to a drop in teaching quality, it noted a 2013 study that “found that casuals are marginalised in academic departments, subject to high levels of uncertainty and arbitrary decisions over future work, and are not respected by their tenured colleagues”.

Douglas claims these conditions can create stress, which is compounded by casuals’ job insecurity.

“I do worry, if you’re insecurely employed, then you always [have to] watch what you’re saying to students.

“Not everything that’s worth saying at university is popular either with your students or … other staff, and if you’re insecurely employed you have no protection to say things that are true and worthwhile but are unpopular.”

Luzia ventured that casual employment can foster frustration, as casual academics aren’t eligible for research funding, “which is why people are in academia in the first place, a lot of the time”.

Mass casualties

Aside from casualisation’s personal issues, Luzia says it affects universities at large.

“I don’t think people get the fact that it’s not just individual,” the former casual academic said. “It’s an institutional stressor.” By this, she means that it puts universities in a precarious position, as at any given time a large proportion of their staff can simply quit, effective immediately.

The data gives more reason for universities to be fearful: casuals comprise a larger segment of the university workforce than ever. According to annual university employment figures released by the government late last year, there has been an estimated 5.3 per cent increase in casual university employees. They are now thought to comprise 17.6 per cent of university workforces.

Both Luzia and Douglas think that those figures belie reality, as, for one, they reflect ‘units’ of full-time equivalent staff, as opposed to actual numbers. If they did the latter, Douglas believes they would be “quite a bit higher”.

“They don’t tell us what we deeply want and need to know,” Luzia added.

Also, they fail to break down the differences between academic and administrative staff. At UTS, for example, only 23 per cent of academic staff are securely employed.

Unite and conquer?

Luzia and Douglas propose a staggeringly simple, albeit not unpainful solution to growing casualisation: stop hiring casuals. They acknowledge that this will cost money, which, with the latest higher education funding cuts, is probably unpalatable.

So, in lieu of this, Luzia suggests universities offer casuals more support, like broader parental leave entitlements.

Other perks she suggests include learning and teaching funding grants, and awards. Similarly, Douglas recommends short-term, rather than casual contracts, and access to sick leave.

“You might spend six hours writing an hour of lecture material, but you only get paid if you present that one hour of lecture material; so if you’re sick for one day a week, you can lose quite a lot of your take-home pay.

“Sick leave, I think, would be a big deal for a lot of casual staff.”

Long term, however, they both believe universities need to unite to combat casualisation, which Luzia terms a ‘structural inequity’.

“No-one ever talks about the fact that when it comes to casual employment at universities, you’ve got qualified professionals and experts. You’ve got engineers, you’ve got accountants, you’ve got librarians, geographers, pathologists, doctors. You’ve got psychologists, professionals, artists, media producers. They have been teaching future and current professionals without having access to leave, professional services and security.

“It’s kind of like … [universities aren’t] taking care of their current experts, who are taking care of their future experts.

“There’s something really wrong with that.”

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  1. Don’t unions exacerbate that though? They’re always pushing for pay rises and more benefits (to justify their existence), and making it virtually impossible to sack or demote permanent staff. That makes the “permanent” workforce more expensive, and makes it harder for employers to run their business efficiently, which are strong incentives to hire non-permanent staff.

    I spent five years on fixed-term contracts before becoming an independent IT contractor. I get no fringe benefits at all, I get paid if I work and not if I don’t.

    I think we’d be better off as a nation if we did away with the notion of permanent employment (and the sometimes ridiculous perks that go with it, like leave loading) and switched to 1 to 5 year contracts. Not likely to be a popular suggestion with the permanent workforce or the unions though.

  2. No, it wouldn’t be popular with unions, because in our experience casual and contract University staff are subject to appalling exploitation and vulnerable to bullying and intellectual property theft (I’m an NTEU rep). As for all those pay rises, yes, it’s called ‘keeping up with inflation’ and if the unions didn’t cause it to happen then wages would continue to fall relative to prices – you obviously haven’t been reading about Australian economists’ concerns recently about the flat-line in wages over the last few years and what it’s doing to the economy.
    The reason you were on fixed term contracts for so long is because over the past 20 years unions have been deliberately weakened by legislation eg. losing the right to strike (go to the ILO website to see what it thinks of Australia’s industrial relations system). Weak unions means more insecure employment.
    Just because you’ve been exploited is no reason to drag everyone down with you. And please stop talking about ‘the unions’ as though they’re some power located in an office somewhere. A union is a union of workers. As a University contract worker you benefited from enterprise bargaining negotiations by unions which were paid for by those workers – and which you probably didn’t contribute to – so try for a little gratitude to your former colleagues.

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