by Liz Baré, Janet Beard and Teresa Tjia

Australian universities have acted quickly to manage their budgets impacted by COVID-19, including reducing casuals, hiring freezes, executive salary cuts, voluntary redundancies and deferring projects.

While expedient, cutting casual teaching is not without risks, with estimates that 40 per cent – 60 per cent of current undergraduate teaching in Australian universities is delivered by casual staff. Our analysis of the national data suggests that a simple reduction of the casual teaching workforce will have serious implications in some disciplines for delivery of teaching.  While cases will differ between and within universities, reductionist strategies may:

* be more effective in those disciplines where a large number of international students is broadly aligned to a high level of casualisation. For example, management and commerce, where reduction in casual staff numbers may be in line with decline in international student numbers.

* have a negative educational impact on domestic students, e.g. in Society and Culture and Education, where the current course delivery relies heavily on casuals, and reduction in the casual workforce may see class sizes increase and possibly courses cease.

Even where a simple reduction of the number of casuals is possible, there are a number of inflexibilities in current university practices/policies which may limit capacity to easily reorganise teaching work for tenured and contract staff. These include:

* mandated application of workload management processes which allocate a fixed percentage of time to research and thus limit the reallocation of working time to teaching

* research reward systems which may limit the willingness of some staff to undertake additional teaching.

* current contractual obligations to teach existing courses and complete research projects.

* new and different work resulting from translating face-to-face teaching to online, e.g. new types of assessment tasks, student support and monitoring for participation, and group discussion moderation.

The current response to COVID-19 further reinforces the unfortunate view of casual academics as expendable, though they are now and will remain essential to teaching and student experience.

Now could be the time to consider opportunities for structuring the casual component of the academic workforce differently.  Options to explore, none of which are easy, include:

* continue and expand the current arrangements with casualisation. Rely on high-quality casual staff to deliver programmes and focus the efforts of existing on-going staff on the development of new programmes and course materials, including on-line learning, and research time for T&R staff.

* develop a new job classification and salary structure which recognises the on-going contribution of casual teaching staff and is designed to cater for the broad duties they currently undertake. This could allow for a broader range of duties to be allocated to people in these new roles (for example, student engagement, preparation of materials for on-line learning).

* coupled with a substantial standardisation and reduction of course offerings, reduce casual staff employment and actively seek to expand the number of fixed term teaching only and teaching and research staff, with the length of fixed term contracts possibly aligned to projected student demand.

In the post COVID-19 world, there will be many changes and impacts on universities, including an opportunity to reimagine the engagement of casual learning and teaching staff.

Based on a new paper for the University of Melbourne’s L H Martin Institute

The authors have worked in several universities in Australia in senior professional and executive roles over many years. Baré and Beard are honorary senior fellows with the LH Martin Institute.



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