More Australian universities are relying on casual academics to teach their students. It’s difficult to estimate the exact proportion of academic staff on casual contracts, but reports suggest up to 80% of undergraduate courses in some Australian universities have been taught by a casual academic. By mid-2018, an estimated 94,500 people were employed at Australian universities on a casual basis, primarily in teaching-only roles.
Research suggests the higher education sector is the third largest employer of casual staff nationwide, just behind health- and social-care and retail.
Although casual academics are on temporary contracts, some have been working for universities longer than their colleagues on continuing contracts. This trend is not unique to Australia. There are concerns the number of casual academics working in higher education is growing worldwide. Current research suggests several explanations.
Second, casual academic contracts provide workforce flexibility at a time when student enrolments are fluctuating and budgets are limited. This means universities can service their teaching needs on a just-in-time basis.
Using casual academics brings benefits and challenges. But casualised labour won’t be done away with any time soon. We suggest universities manage their casualised staff more effectively and equitably – and bring their employment conditions as close to those of permanent staff as possible.
Concerns about casual academics
There are growing concerns about the impact of casual academics on the quality of teaching. Australia’s higher education regulator, for example, states that an “unusually high reliance on casual staff poses risks for the quality of the students experience″.
Our unpublished research suggests casual academics are often recruited on an ad hoc basis, which is unlike the highly regulated recruitment processes for continuing staff. This means more reliance on personal connections, short notice and limited market searches.
Continuing staff are usually required to complete some form of professional development to keep up-to-date with teaching and research innovations. However, professional development for casual academics is often limited, with little oversight from the employer. In some instances it has to be in their own time and at their own expense.
Short lead-in times to a casual contract also leave casual academics with little time to prepare course materials. Nor do they allow enough time to understand institutional cultures and policy requirements. Institutions with high numbers of casual staff may also find it difficult to ensure continuity of course offerings which can impact on student learning.
Benefits of casual academics
Despite these concerns, casual academics also bring important benefits to higher education. Many are industry professionals with a deep understanding of the real world practices they are teaching. They can also connect students and other university staff to their industry networks. This can create opportunities for industry research projects and student internships.
Research also shows that many casual academics have high levels of commitment to their students. They regularly go beyond their contractual obligations by writing job references, providing career advice and making connections for future employment.
From the perspective of the individual casual academic, casual academic work is something of a double-edged sword. Some enjoy the flexibility of not having to fulfil service requirements such as attending meetings and annual performance reviews. Yet they also miss out on the benefits of being part of an academic community. This includes restricted opportunities for conference travel, professional development and promotion.
Many casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions. Yet they must also contend with less job security. There is no guarantee of work from one semester to the next, which creates a lack of financial security and benefits. For younger cohorts, this is especially problematic for mortgage applications and other loans.
How to make it better
There is an urgent need for a more effective and equitable approach to managing casual academics. Providing more permanent contracts may be one solution, budgets permitting, but there are other options. Besides, some casual academics prefer to retain the flexibility of casual work.
Recruitment and selection of casual academics needs to be more rigorous. Clear job specifications are essential, with systematic interviewing and transparent decision making for all appointments.
There also needs to be enough lead-in time to ensure adequate preparation before the start of a course. Effective induction to institutional learning and teaching policies is also required – especially for new appointees.
Professional development opportunities need to be embedded into work contracts with time paid for by the employer. More attention also needs to be paid to support financial security, including a review of financial institutions’ loan policies.
Increased competition and budget cutbacks in the global higher education sector mean the use of casual academic labour will increase even further. Institutional policy makers must work effectively with these important partners in the education of the future labour force.
This article previously, incorrectly, said the higher education sector was the third largest employer of casual staff globally, rather than nationwide. This has now been updated.
Authors: Dorothy Wardale, MBA, Deputy Director, Curtin University