University casual workers were the first shock absorbers in the university sector of the pandemic, and it’s in-line with a deliberate strategy of risk mitigation pursued by universities over the years, in tandem with their increasing reliance on fee-paying international students as sources of revenue, (CMM August 13).

We have argued (CMM May 17) that Department of Education Skills and Employment data on Australian public sector university staff and university annual reports disclose a “full-time equivalent staff number”, not the actual number of employees and how FTE is calculated is not discussed.

However, there are reports that thousands of professional and academic staff positions have already been abolished.

With an estimated 90,000 casual, part-time, administrative and research jobs in universities mass terminations would irrevocably damage Australia’s capacity to teach, research and contribute to the community.

Last week in an NSW Legislative Council committee hearing, several VCs were questioned about casuals. For instance, it was disclosed that at UNSW, some 741 FTE positions are occupied by 5,846 individual casual staff members.

Also, in evidence, it was stated that the NSW branch of the National Tertiary Education Union had written to all vice-chancellors in New South Wales requesting information on their casual employment data and how many casual jobs have been lost during the pandemic.

Only  Michael Spence from the University of Sydney had provided that information. Dr Spence, in his letter, stated were 9,443 casual staff engaged at the University of Sydney this year. That is an incredible number of casual workers. He also revealed in his letter that the casual staffing budget had been cut by 15 per cent; so, job losses that have already occurred, but provided no number of actual employees

Unlike Victorian universities, which must disclose actual numbers of people as casuals, NSW regulation does not provide for this. There are no general guidelines to account for casuals. Most universities convert them into FTE by some magic wand. It looks from the below explanation that at Uni Sydney EFT is calculated on a working week (35 hours) and not the actual hours of teaching (say a casual teaches a full-time academic load of 12 hours).

In the first sign of public accountability and evidence last week, Dr Spence stated: “I last looked at these numbers about a week ago. The problem with the Victorian numbers is that they are not equivalent full-time numbers; they are warm body numbers. If you teach the piccolo for an hour a week you get counted as a person. We have about 7,000 casual staff and they constitute about  500 full-time equivalents [FTE], which makes for us 500 FTE out of about 6,000 FTE, of which about 3,000 is academic and 3,000 is professional. It is a real issue. …. For those people it is a very real issue indeed, but it is not the issue that it looks from the Victorian statistics, because the Victorian statistics are done on a person and not an hour basis.”

Interesting already  2,500 people have disappeared off the Sydney university books in a short period of time, that is these people are now not employed by and earning an income from Sydney University.

However, the university’s latest 2019 annual report is on no use in trying to solve this puzzle, only disclosing the headcount of continuing and fixed-term staff (academics + general staff), therefore, making invisible the number of casuals employed by Sydney University.

Combined totals of academic and general staff position 2015-19 by appointment term
Year 2016 Year 2017 Year 2018 Year 2019
Continuing 4076 4238 4399 4404
Fixed term 3018 3232 3546 3860
Total 7094 7470 7945 8264

In May, we called upon all VCs to account for casuals in the name of public accountability and to disclose staff numbers, monthly from January 1 2020. We read a lot about the loss of revenue and cost-cutting, but very little about the number of actual people working in the Australian higher education system and the loss of their wages, (CMM May 17).

For a dialogue on cost savings (and impacts on employment), we propose;

* universities need to be transparent when it comes to financial management, especially during a crisis, and particularly in amending enterprise agreements which specify terms and conditions of employment.

* there needs to be transparency about future cash flow scenarios driving future sustainable pathways under both firm and full appreciation that cash is of paramount importance.

* universities need to be transparent as to the cross-subsidy that exists between teaching and research funding, as governments, industries and the professions need to step-up to support academic research in future.

The only way to extract this data in public is by Parliamentary review and questioning of VCs.

Well done the  NSW Legislative Council committee.

Professor Tom Smith and Distinguished Professor James Guthrie AM, Macquarie Business School


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