Precarious academic work is an important issue in Australia, and the National Tertiary Education Union is making it a priority.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, teaching at Australian universities has become casualized with tens of thousands of academics employed on an hourly basis for just a few hours a week during a teaching period.

This is having severe consequences for the next generation of academics who are increasingly abandoning any thought of an academic career. The major interaction for many students with the university is through alienated casual tutors and they cannot get support when they need it unless their casual tutor works unpaid hours. University management cynically rely upon the casual academics putting in volunteer hours because of their loyalty to students and the need to secure their next contract.

Precarious employment in Australian higher education is higher than in most other sectors of the economy with four in five new jobs over the last decade being casual or fixed term. Today, only one in two university staff has an ongoing, or permanent, position.

With teaching substantially casualized, those in tenured academic jobs have to take on all the other parts of an academic workload. Casual teaching staff are not paid to undertake writing and reviewing courses, postgraduate supervision, university service, or collegial practices such as peer reviewing, which are all part of the usual role of academics.

Compounding the issue is that research is increasingly being carved off from academic positions with a 50 per cent increase in research-only positions in the last decade. However, these jobs also are increasingly precarious with over 80 per cent of grant funded research positions now fixed term contracts for both academic and
professional staff.

The latest federal department of education higher education staffing data highlights the continuing decline in teaching and research categorised positions, with an almost 35 per cent increase in teaching-only positions. Over 80 per cent of teaching-only staff are casual and the situation continues
to deteriorate. The latest data also show that
the number of casual academics increased
3.4 per cent just between 2012 and 2013.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) represents staff employed in universities and allied institutions. The NTEU is an industry union and includes academic and general staff in ongoing and insecure jobs. The union negotiates collective agreements in all universities and has a track record of keeping salaries internationally competitive and maintaining decent conditions, including pioneering breakthroughs in areas like parental leave and in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment targets.

Job security has become a critical priority for the union as higher education jobs have become increasingly precarious, and even those workers in ongoing positions face continual restructuring and redundancies. The workload for remaining ongoing and insecurely employed staff across all university areas continues to escalate as student enrolments increase. Attempts by corporatized university managements to break with collective agreements and isolate the union also continue to escalate.

Late last year the NTEU held a national conference on insecure work with delegates from all universities. While the union has always organized and bargained to contain insecure work and to protect those in such jobs, the problem has blown up in recent years. The conference provided a platform for the union leadership to make a public commitment to prioritize organising around precarious work and with precarious workers. While contract and casual employment is rising across most areas of the university, the priority focus is presently upon academic teaching casual staff and research contract staff.

In 2014, NTEU conducted a survey to investigate how the move to ‘blended’ and online delivery was impacting upon the working conditions of academics employed casually (hourly) at Australian universities.

“I think casual academics are often the “face” of the university’s learning programs, as they are the people having regular communication with students about their learning and providing feedback about assessment tasks. This does not seem to be supported by the working conditions… I am operating in a relatively isolated context, with little contact with an opportunity to learn about the school’s core staff development, discussion or planning. There is no formal process of performance review, so that, as far as I know, there is no documentation that records the quality of my teaching.”

“My contract is a year-by-year proposition, with no security beyond that. If (the) uni is repeatedly hiring someone like me to do the same thing year after year on a series of 1 year contracts, should there be some requirement to offer to make the position permanent after a while?“

These comments are indicative of what we hear from casually employed academics in the survey.

This survey was not a piece of abstract research, but integral to the NTEU’s ongoing campaign to bring justice to the increasing numbers of academics employed by the hour, who are now doing more than half of the teaching in Australian universities. The NTEU’s campaign has had for many years a dedicated website,, as well as the regular journal Connect.

The findings of the latest survey confirmed those of previous NTEU surveys, were consistent with findings in similar international surveys, and echoed academic research. The findings also support the ground-breaking doctoral thesis of Robyn May (Brown et al, 2010; May 2011, May et al 2013). Dr. May’s thesis overturned the widely held misconception that casual academics only work casually for a short period and are mainly people finishing PhDs or others not seeking an academic career.

Over the past two decades, the profession of the teaching and research academic has gradually been eroded. The old career path of completing a PhD, then moving into an entry level lecturer position, and if all went well, tenure after three years is now only for a privileged few. In the old days, casual lecturing and tutoring was shared by graduate students (who were often also on scholarships), professionals providing specialist input, and some dipping their toe into academia. Most teaching was done by tenure or tenurable academics.

The NTEU won a landmark case two decades ago that restricted the use of contract staff to categories of genuine fixed-term replacement or grant-funded positions. This improved job security for existing academic and general staff, many of whom were converted to ongoing positions. What has changed is that now, despite enormous growth in the university system, new academic jobs are more likely to be casualized, and old jobs when vacated are also replaced with casual staff.

Australia has a public university system, which was always funded significantly by the government, secular, and co-educational. Just over twenty five years ago, the federal government drew together public tertiary education institutions into a unitary system of universities. This opened up opportunities for those staff who had taught in technical and teacher training colleges to pursue more traditional academic careers with time and resources to undertake original research. The NTEU, also the product of the amalgamation of separate unions representing university and college academic staff as well as administrative, technical, and other support employees, fought hard in its early years for a common career structure for academic staff.

Over this period, Australia also moved firmly to a mass higher education system with expansion of university places and campuses, including new opportunities in relatively sparsely populated regions. With, for example, nursing education moving into universities, a university degree was now necessary for professional and sub-professional careers.

To fund the teaching of undergraduate domestic students, universities receive a block grant from the federal government composed of direct government funds plus a component (currently around 40 per cent) funded by students through a deferred loan scheme (called the Higher Education Loan Program or HELP). Students pay back their debt when they reach a certain income level. The fee levels are capped. The current Conservative government is attempting to cut funding and allow universities to charge whatever fees they want. However, fee deregulation legislation has been twice defeated in the national senate.

Government funding is inadequate and universities have compensated by increasing class sizes, casualizing teaching, increasing workloads, and relying upon income from international student fees. Arising out of the recommendations of two independent reviews commissioned by the federal government, the NTEU has been campaigning for several years for a conservative ten per cent increase in the government’s base funding grants to universities.

The Union also calls upon the government to increase public investment in higher education to at least one percent of GDP. At present Australian lags amongst OECD countries in terms of government investment, and is near the top in terms of the level of tuition fees charged.

The post-doctoral students attempting to eke out a living as casual academics are still accumulating debt on their undergraduate loans—as they have not reached an income level to start repaying their debt. The other major route of employment for doctoral
graduates who want to work in academic education and research is to take on fixed- term research positions, which while better paid still leave people with no income security or opportunity to plan ahead. Australian lecturers and researchers have always looked overseas for career advancement, especially to North America and Europe. Now there are opportunities in the rapidly expanding higher education sector in Asia. As a result, Australia does, rather spectacularly for such a rich country, suffer from a brain drain.

The bottom line is that Australian governments—whether Labour or Conservative—are enmeshed in the international neoliberal trend towards cutting government investment in public services and institutions. At the same time, they are increasingly dependent upon universities to educate the tertiary workforce of the future and undertake research critical to national economic growth and social stability.

The NTEU has not allowed university vice-chancellors to get away with wringing their hands over the fate of the next generation of academics, claiming it is out of their control and all the federal government’s fault. University leaders are in thrall to neoliberal management mantras and embrace cost-cutting measures and workforce flexibility. University administrators make choices in their expenditure. Most universities are still accumulating surpluses and a number of vice-chancellors have remuneration packages over $1 million.

When negotiating collective agreements, job security is a key issue. Australia’s internationally competitive salaries and conditions are being eroded due to increased precarious employment. Pursuit of anti-worker and anti-union agendas by successive governments have undermined the efficacy of hard won limits on casual and contract employment. It is increasingly difficult to win conversion clauses and cases. However, the NTEU has succeeded in getting better remuneration and conditions for academic casuals in our agreements. Currently, a case is being developed challenging the basis of work being determined “casual” if it is continuously done in the same way by the same employee.

In the recent round of collective bargaining, the NTEU won around 1000 new academic teaching positions, which will start to provide secure jobs to some casual academics. There was a heated debate within the Union about supporting teaching-focused positions as delegates were reluctant to cede the integrity of the traditional teaching and research academic position. However, with the reality of half of the teaching already being done by teaching-only casual staff, such a position has become untenable.

The job for the Union is to force the employers to create more secure jobs as well as to continuously improve the wages and conditions of casual workers. This has become a discussion point amongst casual academics and NTEU activists. There is concern that putting too much focus on improving casual conditions and remuneration further institutionalises casual employment. The NTEU does not intend to prop up an alternative (and inferior) career track, but casual academics need short-term relief.

Immediate conditions of work mobilize casual academics to start agitating and joining together with the Union. Organizing on the ground wins improvements, and success on one site soon spreads to others. Issues like being paid on time; access to training, to libraries and IT; adequate working space; and payment to attend meetings are all winnable demands that improve the day-to-day conditions of casuals. After some campus-based wins in the previous round of collective bargaining, the NTEU successfully won extra payment for marking across universities, crushing the employers’ argument that this is built into the hourly casual rate. This has forced universities to pay up, although many have tried to get around this by offering to pay for only a proportion of the time marking really takes.

As one respondent explained in the online teaching survey:

“Never enough time allocated. One course – the same assignment went from a 20 minute allocation at complex rates to 10 min at simple rates. Of course expectations about feedback etc. did not change. It doesn’t seem to matter to some coordinators, unfortunately…”

The NTEU is also focusing on publicizing the unpaid and unrecognised, but nonetheless expected extra work of casual academics. Experienced casuals find themselves coordinating and even writing courses and hiring other casuals. And the hourly rate does not change. There is no promotion or merit increments for casual teaching academics
in Australia.

This is a significant difference with fixed-term research contractors where some people are promoted and yet still continuously employed on fixed-term contracts. The university will not offer them an ongoing position even though the research work continues. This can only be about control. Our employers want a frightened and hopefully docile workforce, constantly worried about retaining employment and getting the next contract.

In a NTEU survey on research contract employment in 2014, respondents explained:

“I have signed over 13 yearly contracts and this creates a lot of insecurity for me around contract time as I am the family bread winner. Some colleagues have not had their contracts renewed after over 15 years of service and they receive minimal payout for this (approx. 8 weeks’ pay). Yearly contracts make you very vulnerable to the commitment of your supervisor to like you and bother to find work for you.”

“I have repeatedly been surprised at how few people, including senior management, actually understand what it means to be a research-only staff member at [name of university] and to have to earn your income from external sources. We even have to cover any time spent on university committees and even earn our own holiday pay…”

For the NTEU, insecure work is also an academic freedom issue. Insecure workers are less likely to criticize, do anything adventurous, or tackle controversial issues. Academic casuals usually have no say in what they teach, or how they do so. They cannot follow through on issues like student plagiarism. If they propose setting further work to test underperforming students, they are likely to be told there is no money to pay for it. Academics, tenured or casual, constantly worry about quality and the maintenance of standards.

For fixed-term researchers, the message is that it is better to stick to the safe projects where results are assured, along with, by extension, the next grant. There is a reluctance to speak out and risk being dubbed a troublemaker as this is likely to mean an end to employment.

This environment does drive a wedge between insecure and more securely employed academics, as tenured academics are reliant upon the casuals to do the teaching that frees them up to do the research that advances their careers. One higher education and research commentator provocatively recently wrote in a mainstream daily newspaper:

“There’s a growing divide among university staff between the haves and have-nots. Some academics are just hanging onto to their jobs; others are losing them while some lead a charmed existence”… (Erica Cervini, the Age, November 3, 2014).

Surveys conducted by the National Union of Students repeatedly report that students cannot get the amount of teaching or support they need. In the past, there would be criticism by students of their casual lecturers and tutors. But with the greater knowledge of the circumstances of casual academic staff, students have become much more sympathetic and are developing as important allies. Students joined unionists on picket lines during the last collective bargaining campaigns.

Student organizations are focusing their complaints toward university management and are particularly angry about universities that are increasing class sizes and even cancelling face-to-face classes to further bring down teaching costs. Students recognize that their casual tutors are volunteering much of their labour and yet students are still paying hefty fees.

When the union staff and activists join with casual and contract staff in organizing at a local level, and other union members join in, small changes are won and bigger challenges taken on. This year, increased effort is being made to organize academic casuals in and across their workplaces. Targeted campaigns to organize in research centres are planned. Academic casuals and research contractors (often the same people) are also very active on social media, and are monitoring what is going on in other countries and are encouraged by actions in Canada, the US, and UK.

Australian activists are always looking for more novel ways of making their case, drawing upon examples like the clever “yoga action” of the Sydney University casuals network a few ago where they performed a yoga class in front of the university dignitaries and at a public rally, with renamed positions like “bending over backwards” and “standing in solidarity.”

The NTEU has long recognized that we have a responsibility to organize precariously employed workers in our industry. We must for the good of us all. Two old union adages constantly remind us that “an injury to one is an injury to all” and “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’.” We expect our public universities to act for the public good. This includes modelling decent work practices. The NTEU intends to make sure universities follow through on their obligations. AM

Jeannie Rea has been the national president of Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) since 2010 and has studied, worked, and agitated in post-secondary education since the halcyon days of the1970s.