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Demand drives increase in casual staff at universities

Australian Universities

BY BERNARD LANE AND JULIE HARE

Casual staff on campus increased by 17 per cent in the latest official count as universities hedged their bets against the uncertain student numbers of the demand-driven system.

In 2013, estimated casuals rose 17.4 per cent to 22,958 full-time equivalent staff, the biggest increase since 2010, when partial de-regulation of student places began to fuel growth. Last year, casuals accounted for more than 18 per cent of total staff.

“The massive increase in casual staff certainly reflects the demand-driven system, but it also reflects the changing nature of the workforce more generally and the fact that universities are under budgetary pressure,” said Universities Australia‘s chief executive Belinda Robinson. “And casualisation suits a lot of people who take a portfolio approach to their career; they mix and match academic work with work in industry, consulting and so on.”

She acknowledged there were significant numbers of casual staff who felt locked out of full-time positions. “The fact is funding is more uncertain than it has ever been and universities need to be more flexible to the demands of students than they have ever been. It also reflects a broader societal move towards casualisation.”

Matt McGowan, assistant secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union, said it was now clear student-staff ratios had doubled over a generation, and casuals carried more than half the load in undergraduate teaching.

“About eight out of every 10 researchers are employed on short-term contracts, which is making research an unattractive career for our best and brightest graduates,” he said. “The real question that the government has to ask is whether this is the way to build a high quality and sustainable higher education system.”

He said the figures showed the effect of the demand-driven system, with seven out of 10 new positions being casual.

Last year, just over 50 per cent of total staff were employed on a continuing basis, down from about 60 per cent at the turn of the millennium, while the casual share had risen from about 15 per cent in 2000 to 18.7 per cent last year.

Carolyn Gregortic, who has had 30 academic jobs since she began her PhD in 2006, knows what it’s like to lack job security. Even since she was awarded her doctorate early last year, things haven’t improved. At one stage last year, she held eight simultaneous contracts with the one university.

“I don’t know what I’m doing next week, but I’m very well organised. I have a folder for every job and it’s all colour-coded,” Dr Gregortic laughs from the car park during school pick-up.

Dr Gregortic, who started her undergraduate degree as a mature-age student when her daughter was six months old, says she is applying for every permanent position that becomes available at Adelaide’s three public universities, but has so far been unsuccessful.

“They say I meet all the selection criteria and am deemed employable, but not successful,” she said. “That means they employed someone else.”

The 2013 staff figures also show the emergence of a handful of research powerhouse universities in which research-only staff outnumber those in the traditional teaching and research academic role.

The most striking example is the University of Queensland, with 2071 full-time equivalent staff dedicated to research alone, compared with 1265 in traditional academic roles.

“It’s absolutely a good indicator of the success of those universities in developing and growing their research activity,” said Belinda Probert, an adjunct professor at La Trobe University with a keen interest in academic roles.

Citing tailor-made data from the Education Department, Professor Probert said there had been a pause in the growth of teaching-only roles last year but this was likely to resume as universities updated enterprise bargains.

If the demand-driven system is bad news for job security, it was also supposed to make it much harder for private higher education, since students would find it much easier to get a subsidised place at a public university. Student figures for the first half of last year show solid growth. Private undergraduate numbers were up 16.2 per cent while postgraduate commencements rose 13.6 per cent.

Claire Field of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training said she believed publicity associated with the expanded university sector, mass media campaigns by some private providers and word of mouth had come together in such a way that potential students were aware of a wider range of choice.

The student figures also reveal how the demand-driven system is playing out in individual public institutions.

Public universities saw an increase in first-year enrolments in 2013 of 1.4 per cent higher than the previous year, resulting in the system teaching a total of 1,060,316 actual students.

The data reveals strong growth in first-year enrolments in Victoria, a 7.1 per cent increase of equivalent full-time students from the previous year, with RMIT, Swinburne and Victoria University leading the charge. Only the University of Ballarat saw a small decline of 2 per cent.

It was a different story in Western Australia where all four universities went backwards in first-year enrolments led by Murdoch with a decline of 9.2 per cent. The biggest single decline was from Charles Sturt University, which saw first-year enrolments plummet 14 per cent. (THE AUSTRALIAN)

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