Some staff are more equal than others

Coronavirus-induced workforce shedding has exposed the chasm in Australian university employment arrangements, says John Ross

July 20, 2020
casual take it easy

As the pandemic impoverishes Australia’s higher education sector, the pruning of the workforce is highlighting the apartheid nature of university employment. To use a brutally grim analogy, permanent staff are dispatched with full military honours while their casual and fixed term comrades wind up in mass unmarked graves.

UNSW Sydney is the latest institution to forecast job losses among permanent staff with considerable precision, as it announces a redundancy programme to help address its revenue shortfall. The equivalent of 493 full-time positions will go, it says.

In May, Monash University revealed that it would seek 277 full-time equivalent voluntary redundancies. Deakin flagged the abolition of 400 jobs, 300 of them currently occupied. Central Queensland University said that another 99 jobs would have to go after it accepted requests from 182 staff for “voluntary separation”. Charles Sturt University said that it had earmarked between 100 and 110 full-time equivalent positions for “potential” redundancy.

Expressions of sympathy and regret invariably accompany these revelations. “Unfortunately, we cannot avoid job losses,” said CSU’s acting vice-chancellor John Germov. “Every one will be painful,” said UNSW boss Ian Jacobs.

Somehow, the loss of casual and fixed term staff doesn’t elicit the same degree of pain – or precision, for that matter. Universities seem reluctant to disclose how many have already gone, let alone how many more are expected to go. I have asked such questions of half dozen or so institutions. Not one has given me a number.

Back in April, the University of Sydney announced that a “hiring pause” – tightened controls over new hires for continuing or fixed-term staff, along with a review of casual budgets – would deliver it some A$93 million (£52 million) of the savings it needed to make while “minimising the impact on jobs”.

Asked how many staff faced the chop as a result, Sydney replied: “We have permanent and casual staff employed across the institution where there is work to be done. Where work has slowed, because there are fewer students enrolled than we originally anticipated, we have asked our managers to look at the best way to manage all workloads. This work is ongoing.”

No one doubts the difficult job university administrators face in charting a course through the coronavirus mayhem. But why express such grief over permanent staff redundancies while answering questions about the loss of casuals and fixed-termers with bloodless talk about managing workloads?

Mention of the word “redundancy” no doubt distresses many tenured staff. But some will be quietly delighted. Redundancy payout provisions require universities to hand over perhaps three weeks’ salary for every year of employment, along with accumulated long service leave and up to six months’ pay in lieu of notice. A permanent staffer retrenched after a decade might walk away with a golden handshake worth more than a year’s earnings.

No such largesse awaits casual staff, who may get an hour’s notice that they are no longer needed, or contractors who might get a few weeks’ notice and even some sort of severance pay – but certainly not a year’s salary.

The sheer cost of paying out redundancy packages may partly explain why universities are so good at estimating their losses of permanently employed staff. Bean counters would have to do the numbers carefully to make sure the gain is worth the pain.

There are other reasons why the loss of casual staff, in particular, can be hard to gauge. By their very nature, casuals come and go. It would be difficult to tease out the pandemic’s casualties from those who would have left anyway.

Casual numbers are also very volatile. The number today might not be the same as the number tomorrow, let alone next week or next month. What census date do you use to calculate the number of casual staff for the year?

Some universities have been rehiring casual staff as pandemic lockdowns stimulated demand for education. UNSW’s Jacobs said that the loss of casual staff had not been as steep as expected because of strong demand for his university’s courses.

Casual staff are often hired at the school or faculty level, making it harder for central institutional bureaucracies to gauge their numbers. And data about casuals is rubbery at the best of times. Education department statistics, which are always at least a year out of date, record casuals in full-time equivalent terms – which can mean little in terms of real people.

Nevertheless, you’d expect universities to have some idea how many casual staff they employ and discard. Apparently not – even in Victoria, the only jurisdiction that requires universities to report their casual staff as headcounts.

The National Tertiary Education Union’s Victorian division has kept a statewide tally of coronavirus-induced losses of casual and fixed-term staff. The numbers are derived mainly from two universities which, it says, have provided detailed data in accordance with agreements they had signed with the union. But when I checked the numbers with the two universities in question, both said that they were inaccurate.

The division’s assistant secretary, Sarah Roberts, said that some universities simply had “no idea” how many casuals had gone. And while people lamented redundancies involving perhaps a few hundred staff, “no one’s even said boo” about the thousands of missing casuals. “Hopefully they had other employment as well as their casual university jobs,” Ms?Roberts said.

Tom Barnes, an NTEU branch committee member at the Australian Catholic University, highlighted the employment parallels between universities and warehouse logistics – a sector he studies as an economic sociologist. “The work and the labour process are radically different, but the nature of employment contractual arrangements is remarkably similar.”

Ben Eltham, NTEU branch president at Monash University, said that casual staff were “just not seen as real workers” by university management. “It’s a bit of a dirty secret – it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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