by Tom Smith and James Guthrie

When universities propose cutting costs there is little mention of the number of actual people who will lose their jobs as distinct from the administrative convenience of “full-time equivalent” positions

This is particularly egregious given universities are supposed to be teaching the leaders of tomorrow who need great exemplars of ethical conduct. If universities for example, are using casuals as permanent employees to staff the same courses year after year they are making a wrong ethical choice, which may breach labour laws. It is time for university administrators to become beacons of ethical conduct, shining lights for academics, students and the public.

Practice in the Australian public universities is to convert all employee numbers into full-time equivalent staff (FTE) – which is convenient when the number of people who lose work is much larger than positions that are abolished. In Australian universities, casual workers were the first in the university sector to go with the pandemic, with reports thousands of professional and academic staff positions have already been, or will be, eliminated. There were an estimated 100,000 casual, part-time, administrative and research jobs in universities in December 2019 and mass terminations will irrevocably damage Australia’s capacity to teach, research and contribute to the community.

Department of Education Skills and Employment data on Australian public sector university staff and university annual reports disclose these as “full-time equivalent staff” number, not the actual number of employee bodies. How FTES is calculated is not discussed.

But information in university annual reports, charities commission reports, parliamentary evidence and other sources make it possible to estimate the number of people involved.  We use the University of New South Wales as an example to illustrate this.

In July UNSW announced a planned reduction of 493 FTE positions (CMM July 16) cuts planned, including around 260 forced redundancies (CMM September 16), accounting for around 7.5 per cent of staff. The reduction was to help cover a funding shortfall of $370m in 2021. The university also announced it would cut 25 per cent of senior management (16 to 12) in consolidating eight faculties into six.

In the 2019 annual report, UNSW discloses a total staff of 7200, 6700 full-time equivalent. This is only broken down into academic staff and professional staff.

Using the charities commission reports, we constructed the following table for UNSW indicating the number of individuals by employment class. In this case, the actual number of casual employers reported is 12,949, and the full-time equivalent staff is 6800.


2016 2017 2018 2019
Full time employees 5,032 5,363 6,040 6,113
Part time employees 1,157 1,118 1,238 1,261
Casual employees actual 8,433 9,155 11,671 12,949
Full-time equivalent staff $$$ 5,745 6,726 6,799
Estimated number of volunteers 4,652 4,757 2,000 1,813
$$$ no disclosed

In evidence to a NSW Legislative Council committee UNSW VC Ian Jacobs stated,  “just to give a sense of the number of individuals who are involved in casual employment through UNSW, it is approximately 5,800 individuals doing just over 0.1 of a full-time equivalent in terms of employment. That comes down to about 740 full-time equivalents, and our total staff numbers are over 7,200, so it is a relatively small part of our workforce.”

However, in response to supplementary questions dated September 7 2020 UNSW provided the following disclosure.


Question: “What proportion of the staff are on fixed-term contracts? Obviously, that is the other element of insecure employment. You have given us casual employment, and you say 5,846 of 7,200 are on casual. What about fixed-term? How many staff do you have on fixed-term contracts?”

UNSW Response: UNSW’s FTES numbers (including staff funded through external funds) are as follows: Continuing (including convertible tenure track) – 3,983.9 (50.9 per cent) Fixed-term – 2,606.6 (33.3 per cent); Casual (based on 2019 actuals) – 1,240 (15.8 per cent).


The actual number of people universities employ need not be this obscure. In Victoria, the state government requires universities disclose classes of employment and actual numbers of bodies.

As Uni Sydney VC Michael Spence told the NSW Legislative Council in August, “the problem with the Victorian numbers is that they are not equivalent full-time numbers; they are warm body numbers… 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.”

But not collecting statistics on people employed, regardless of the hours worked makes the human cost of job losses invisible.  And this is what occurs at universities across the country.

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


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