Reporting changes by universities and government downplays the extent of casualisation and job losses in public universities last year.

As to how many people lost their jobs, the new report on universities by the Victorian Auditor-General Office’s is silent – stating figures in full-time equivalents.

As CMM reported last week , “The report does state that 42 per cent of FTE job losses were permanent staff, but how many part-timers, casuals and short-term contract employees made up the 58 per cent is not stated.” (CMM June 25).

The purpose of this feature article is to explore how many people lost employment in Victorian public sector universities in 2020. I do this by cross tabulating data from the Auditor-Generals report, university annual reports and charity reports for 2019.

VAGO (Figure 1B) shows each university’s relative size, based on the number of equivalent full-time student load (EFTSL) enrolled and the number of staff employed (FTE).

Before COVID-19, up to 70 per cent of Australian university staff worked casually within teaching, research, and administration (Carnegie and Guthrie 2020). As of December 2020, Victorian public universities have announced reduced working conditions, voluntary and compulsory redundancies, and other significant so-called “cost savings” measures.

Employee expenses are the highest cost to the sector. This is not a surprise as people make the university work, teach, and undertake research. Physical assets such as buildings are only there to undertake these activities. The Auditor-General stated losses in revenue, and the sector reduced its employee base by 4210 full-time equivalents (FTE) (or 10 per cent) in 2020. Forty-two per cent of staff losses were permanent employees.

VAGO Figure 3E highlights that despite the fall in employee numbers, employee expenses increased by $370 million (or 6.5 per cent) to $6bn in 2020. This is mainly due to the high cost of redundancy programmes. In 2020, the sector reported $233.8m million in termination expenses ($36.8m in 2019).

From charities disclosures and annual reports, I calculated head counts at each university in 2019 as

* Deakin University 11106

* Federation University Australia 1699

* La Trobe University 6057

* Monash University 16 558

* RMIT University 12 467

* Swinburne University of Technology 4353

* University of Melbourne 16132

* Victoria University 4487.

As an illustration, Monash University’s 2019 figures were extracted from our database.

They report 9211 FTE, made up of 6494 full-time positions, 1925 part-time positions and 8139 casual employees, a headcount of 16 558. However, in the university’s 2020 Annual Report the fine print and notes for headcount show that only active paid staff members are now counted at the last pay period date. Also, active casual/sessional staff members who did not work in this period are excluded from the Monash dataset. This is attributed to following the Department of Education, Skills and Employment 2020 workforce data reporting guidelines , which Monash U does not state,

The university’s 2019 Annual Report included the total number of active casual/sessional staff members for the entire year, as of 31 December 2019, and changed accounting practices under the new guidelines for the 2020 reporting year, casual/ sessional employees have been counted as those who are active and employed in the last pay period of the reporting year. This is interesting in that they disclose a headcount of 10042 compared to my number of 16 558 employees for 2019.

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 pay period of the reporting year (2020). For example, the FTE of casual/ sessional staff members who worked months of the year but are no longer active in December are omitted. This would be most casual teaching staff.

I note that the statistics on casualisation presented by universities and DESE present a partial and fuzzy  picture. This has been particularly noted during 2020 as a lack of discussion about the actual number of people employed by Victorian public universities and the loss of employment by the Victorian people.

The Department or universities do not now provide actual headcount of academic and professional casuals in the sector. A more complex issue is that sector estimates of the total number of full-time equivalent (FTE) do not reflect employment realities.

Universities report on workforce data to DESE annually. The data on casual staff numbers is provided in aggregate rather than unit record (i.e., a single record may relate to many staff members). DESE requires universities to use a standardised formula to establish an “equivalence” between the work undertaken by a casual academic worker and a continuing full-time academic worker. This formula varies according to different teaching and other roles but is not made available to the public.

As Dados et al.  conclude, “as revealed in the response from the DET to our concerns, there are reputational risks in casualisation data: this is indeed ‘For Official Use Only’, to be insulated from wider public view or scrutiny as the consequences can be explosive.”

Marshman and  Larkins estimate in CMM that 7500 Victorian universities employees had lost their jobs in 2020, based on 2020 annual reports, but as set out above, a change in accounting for employees, suggests this figure is too low. This is because vice-chancellors and governments do not like to disclose lost jobs, especially their adverse impacts on people, teaching and learning.

Also, Guthrie and O’Connell (CMM May 31) examined the Victorian public sector annual reports and noted that they have changed how they calculate headcount from 2019 to 2020 and used so-called future budgeted accounting losses to justify reducing employment and conditions. In press releases and internal documents, Victorian public sector universities have adopted imprecise language to describe financial results for 2020, with accounting terms such as “surplus”, “reportable,” “operating,” “statutory,” and “underlying” sometimes used in the same sentence.

I conclude that VCs and the various governments have downplayed the extent of casualisation and job losses in 2020 in universities through bureaucratic means. It is crucial to challenge these numbers. The official figures must be questioned, and alternative data developed to reveal the impact of casualisation and other job loss in public universities. For these purposes, we have developed a unique database that includes all Australian public sector universities with links to website and Annual Reports data. Also, for staff data, for each University, we have data for years 2017, 2018 and 2019 on the following:  casuals; full-time employees; part-time employees;  full-time equivalent staff.

Distinguished Professor James Guthrie AM, Macquarie U Business School


* Dados, N., Goodman, J., & Yasukawa, K. (2019). Counting the uncounted: contestations over casualisation data in Australian universities. In J. Evans, S. Ruane, & H. Southall (eds.), Data in society: challenging statistics in an age of globalisation (pp. 327-336). Policy Press.


to get daily updates on what's happening in the world of Australian Higher Education