Insecure work has become endemic in Australian public sector universities, caused by the rapid marketisation of higher education and the now failed business model of relying on fee-paying international students.

Reflecting the neoliberal ideal of a flexible workforce, in Australia, most academics undertaking research and teaching can only find precarious employment as hourly paid casuals. The dependence on casual academics is risky. It undermines the academic career path, and therefore the profession as a whole. It threatens the quality of university education and therefore poses a reputational problem for the sector and individual universities. Furthermore, it creates industrial injustice for casual academics who are marginalised and locked into a permanently precarious employment situation.

Recently, The Centre for Future Work, using ABS data, found that the tertiary education sector has lost 40,000 jobs (almost one job in five).  Most of those jobs (about 35 000) lost from public sector universities, and most of these jobs have been fixed-term and casual positions.

In the past, we could estimate the actual casualisation rate of public universities using their annual reports and charity commission disclosures. However, in the 2020 reports, numerous universities have changed how they disclose casual labour, so reliable headcount measures are not available. My recent research finds that many public accountability documents cannot be relied on for accounting for casuals and all employees.

Defining what a casual is, especially for university teaching, is vital for establishing headcount numbers, where generally casuals are employed weeks before class and up to two weeks after exams. Recently, however, several universities have not included casuals in employees’ disclosures, because they now only count employees on the last payday in December rather than over the whole year. As a result, casuals are most likely unaccounted for in these 2020 annual report university disclosures. (CMM September 20).

It is also essential to understand that there are two principal ways of accounting for employees.  The first relates to headcount, and the second is the estimate of the total number of full-time equivalent (FTE) casuals. Headcount is the number of actual employees ‒ full-time, part-time, fixed-term and casuals ‒ extracted from payroll information. Full-time equivalent (FTE) is an accounting construct – still covering full-time, part-time, fixed-term and casuals – but much more malleable and how constructed is not transparent. This is particularly critical in universities, where changes in accounting for employees in 2020 means that three Victorian public sector universities (Deakin, Melbourne and Monash) appear to have had a significant number of fixed-term and casuals drop off their disclosure regimes. In accounting terms, we call this change the materiality principle. We illustrate the change in numbers in the Table below.

Let us now have a look at the University of Melbourne’s 2020 Annual Report and how it compares to the present web version, described as follows (Campus Morning Mail, 31 Aug 2021):

“This shows a drop in employment of about 1,300 employees during 2020” (see CMM 30 Jun 2021). The tabled Annual Report for 2020 shows an FTE of 9,198 and for 2019 9,514 FTE (or a drop in employment of 316. Why the difference? An explanatory note in the annual report on staff numbers says that “Workforce data generated for the 2020 annual reporting period is based on Higher Education & Skills Group (HESG) Victorian Department of Education and Training guidelines. During 2020, HESG clarified the requirement for annual report data to include workforce data as at the last pay period of the reporting cycle. Previous Annual Reports from 2016–2019 included workforce data that aggregated casual employment throughout the year. For transparency and accurate comparison purposes, the data for 2016–2019 is revised here based on the HESG reporting requirement.”

This statement was missing from the 2020 Annual Report on the University of Melbourne website and tabled in Parliament, although the numbers are the same. I initially pointed this out in (CMM August 31).

The statement in Monash University’s 2020 Annual Report highlights how the accounting has changed: “The Department of Education and Training workforce data reporting guidelines clarified reporting requirements for the 2020 reporting year. The 2019 Annual Report included the total number of active casual/sessional staff members for the full year, as of 31 Dec 2019. In accordance with the clarified guidelines for the 2020 reporting year, casual/ sessional employees have been counted as those who are active and employed in the last full pay period of the reporting year. The 2020 data therefore excludes casual/sessional staff who have performed work in 2020 but were no longer active in the university’s payroll system in the last full pay period of the reporting year (2020). For example, of the FTE casual/ sessional staff members who worked in March but are no longer active in December are not included. Casual staff numbers reduced in 2020 vs 2019, due to campus-based services being subject to some COVID opening and operating restrictions as at the reporting date; sessional numbers increased over the same period due to the later finish to teaching and assessment periods in 2020, relative to 2019.”

The Table below highlights how Deakin, Melbourne and Monash universities recounted their 2019 data differently for 2019 and placed these recalculated numbers in the 2020 annual reports. When comparing the 2020 and 2019 annual report data, there are significant differences in the numbers displayed. The analysis covers two data points about employees, headcount and FTE, and uses two concepts, Updated appears in the 2020 annual report, whilst Original is what appeared in the 2019 annual reports. Therefore, the first cell, Updated  Headcount all employees, shows the differences in all headcounts in the 2019 annual report recalculated to 2020. Hence in the 2020 annual report, the Difference 2019 headcount for all employees for Deakin was -4,494, Melbourne -5,749 and Monash -6,386 employees. These would mainly be fixed-term and casuals employed by the universities, as explained by the Melbourne and Monash notes in the 2020 annual reports (as above). These three universities in 2019 employed at least 16,000 fixed-term and casual staff.  In the cell Headcount fixed term and casuals, Deakin disclosed -4,502 fewer employees in 2019, Melbourne discloses -6,224 fewer employees, and Monash disclosed -6,332 fewer employees in 2019.

In terms of FTE, we can see how the numbers are much less as these are not headcount calculations but, as pointed out in CMM (June 30), in “aggregate rather than unit record (i.e., a single record may relate to many staff members).” The Department of Education, Skills and Employment requires universities to use a formula to establish an “equivalence” between the work undertaken by a casual academic worker and a continuing full-time academic worker. The numbers are much smaller for differences: Deakin recalculated 2019 FTE fixed-term, and casual employees were -866 FTE; Melbourne -233 FTE and Monash -482 FTE.

The numbers in the Table demonstrate that the accuracy of official FTE casualisation statistics should be challenged. Part of the problem is that universities are silent about the number of people who lost work in 2020, the ongoing issue of recognising casuals, and the industry-wide casual wage scandal. On top of this, there have been changes to the Fair Work Act. Approximately 2,800 casual staff at Macquarie University were assessed for conversion to an ongoing role.  Of those assessed, only 48 casual professional staff have received an offer and no academic casual.

Australia’s higher education system needs a drastic overhaul. Before COVID, there were deep flaws in Australia’s higher education system with excessive infrastructure developments and significant investment and shareholdings (net assets A$1 trillion, 2019). The pandemic has exposed the unsustainability of the sector, which was papering over the cracks caused by falling government investment offset with increasing dependence on international onshore student fees. These students primarily enrolled in business schools, where casuals’ academics were used for teaching to augment university-wide research, operations, and infrastructure funds.

Universities have now responded with significant cost reductions, mainly involving redundancies of casualised staff and making redundant full-time staff. Many of these announcements by vice-chancellors are made by internal email and or press release and accounting numbers for finance and reduced staffing produced by future revenue modelling.  In other words, some  public universities are using an accounting technique called Underlying operating result.  As demonstrated above in our analysis of disclosure of university employee numbers, their processes lack transparency and reliability.

In the meantime, university staff are under increasing stress. Mainly, this is caused by decisions made by senior executive, including vice chancellors and their obsession with change proposals, redundancies, massive course restructures, new units, and all the other distractions from the core work of the university ‒ teaching and research.

The workload and stresses imposed by this “change is the only constant: mantra are experienced by staff as insecurity and increased workload ‒ a health issue in themselves (see, for example, a recent World Health Organisation report).

Any vice chancellor in our public sector universities who is serious about leading their university and staff would stop and think and protect their staff from stress, focusing on their wellbeing. When the national and international situation stabilises will be  time to introduce meaningful change. In the meantime, staff, especially fixed-term and casuals, can continue to make an essential contribution to the university as public  institution.

Distinguished Professor James Guthrie AM, Macquarie U Business School

Changed 2019 Reports Deakin Melb. Monash
Updated 2019 Headcount all employees 6,226   12,714 10,042
Original 2019 Headcount all employees 10,720 18,463 16,428
Difference 2019 headcount all employees -4,494 -5,749 -6,386
Updated 2019 Headcount full-time employees 2,958 4,058 3,724
Original 2019 Headcount full-time employees 2,963 4134 3,755
Difference 2019 Headcount full-time employees -5 -76 -31
Updated 2019 Headcount part-time employees 689 962 711
Original 2019 Headcount part-time employees 676 875 710
Difference 2019 Headcount part-time employees 13 87 1
Updated 2019 Headcount fixed-term and casual employees 2,579 7,230 5,607
Original 2019 Headcount fixed-term and casual employees 7,081 13,454 11,939
Difference 2019 Headcount fixed-term and casual employees -4,502 -6,224 -6,332
Updated 2019  FTE all employees 4,535 9,514 8,346
Original 2019  FTE all employees 5,396 9,372 9,188
Difference 2019  FTE all employees -861 141.58 -842
Updated 2019 FTE ongoing employees 3,411 9,514 8,346
Original 2019  FTE ongoing employees 3,407 9,372 9,184
Difference 2019  FTE all employees 4 142 -162
Updated 2019 full-time employees 2,958 4,679 4,210
Original 2019  full-time employees 2,963 4,705 4,239
Difference FTE full-time employees -5 -26 -29
Updated 2019 FTE part-time employees 453 @ @ not disclosed separately
Original 2019  FTE part-time employees 444
Difference FTE full-time employees 9
Updated 2019 FTE fixed-term and casual employees 1,123 4,434 4,012
Original 2019 FTE fixed-term and casual employees 1,989 4,667 4,494
Difference 2019 FTE fixed-term and casual employees -866 -233.1 -482

Table 1: Deakin, Melbourne and Monash Universities employee data in 2020 annual reports


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