Here’s what government and universities can do about the precarious academic work crisis

Contract and casual workers at Australian universities have borne the brunt of lost income and cuts in funding for higher education and research. When the government refused to provide JobKeeper to public universities during the COVID pandemic, thousands of contract academics were thrown out.

My research, with Nerida Spina, Simon Bailey, Mhorag Goff and Kate Smithers, aims to understand and support the professional life of academics in precarious employment. We have solutions for governments and universities to reduce the burden of widespread precariousness.

This precariousness does not only affect individuals. Insecurity, systematic underpayment and lack of support for contract and casual workers in the sector are eroding Australia’s intellectual capital. This impacts the educational and employment opportunities of our students.

Read more: Wage theft and casual labor are embedded in universities’ business models

The lack of secure employment opportunities for academics leads to a “brain drain” as researchers take their skills to international markets. As Miro Astore, a PhD candidate in science, calculated last month, the government has invested a million dollars to educate him, but he is about to leave Australia and may never return.

It is true that precariousness and precarious employment conditions have been commonplace in academia for decades. However, we are now aware of the rampant salary theft of casual and contract academic staff. This week, higher education regulator TEQSA again warned universities against underpaying staff.

Despite recent legislation to move casuals who work regular hours into permanent positions, less than 1% of academic casuals have been converted to permanent, secure employment. A casual tutor at Flinders University, who had taught for almost 16 years during teaching spells, lost his application to the Fair Work Commission this week to be converted into a permanent part-time position. The result of this test is the last straw for many in the sector.

Read more: Unis only offered 1 in 100 casual permanent status in 2021. Why aren’t the conversion rules working for these staff?

What can the government do?

With these pressures in mind, the next government must tackle this crisis in Australian higher education. Our research reveals the government reforms needed to stop talent drain as well as practical steps universities can take to support precarious scholars and improve the quality of study programs for all Australians.

The next government must:

  • urgently raise funding for higher education

  • hold universities to account for underpaid staff

  • amend legislation relating to the transition of casuals to continuous employment.

What can universities do?

At the local level, universities can quickly solve three key problems.

1. Receiving grants and publishing your research is essential for all scholars.

Grants are at the heart of research, allowing researchers to acquire new knowledge. The Australian Research Council (ARC) grants are the greatest prize of all. Yet, being on a fixed-term contract often prevents scholars from applying for these scholarships.

Academics in tenured positions must push back against institutional practices that marginalize the contribution of contract researchers.

2. One of the biggest influences on how researchers experience contract work is their direct supervisor.

Our research reveals the importance for managers to have regular open and honest conversations with academics about the duration of contracts and to support them in their research and teaching work. This work is the central role of the university.

Read more: The casual staff who provide 80% of undergraduate teaching need more support – here’s how united can help

3. Casual and fixed-term staff are often deprived of training and conferences that can help them develop their skills.

Academics are generally not paid when they participate in professional development. So our university educators have to use their own time, and perhaps miss paid work, to stay on the cutting edge for our students.

While academic staff can – and should – oppose precarious work, higher education policies wield the ultimate influence. And higher education policy has been largely absent from this election campaign.

So what did the parties offer?

The Labor Party’s main higher education policy calls for A$481.7 million in funding for an additional 20,000 university places for students over the next two years. It also offered additional funding to universities that offer courses in “national priority areas like clean energy, advanced manufacturing, health and education, or where there are skills shortages.”

Labor has promised to reform the sector through an agreement with Australian universities. There are very few details, however, on what it might look like.

The Coalition’s higher education policy focuses on the commercialization of research and the establishment of collaboration between industry and universities. The cornerstone of this policy was a pledge of $362 million over five years for six “pioneer universities.” These are seen as partnerships between partners in industry, small and medium enterprises and universities to “strengthen their research translation and commercialization capabilities”.

Both sides of the policy have promised more university places for young Australians. Yet neither has released plans to support those who will teach them. Their silence on how universities can provide a high-quality education for these additional students speaks volumes.

Read more: Here’s what major parties need to do about higher education this election

If these policies are really about supporting education and employment opportunities for young Australians, surely the government needs to think about what happens to these students in universities. A key starting point is to ensure that all academics, regardless of their professional status, are supported and compensated appropriately for their work.

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