Connect, March 2021

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onnect volume 14 number 1

semester 1 march 2021

Challenging the casualisation of academia

Where’s the vaccine for insecure work?

Edtech & the casualisation of academic work

How casual became predictable Practices causing lost income for OET assessors Member & Delegate profiles


COVID, casuals & workplace safety

How do you solve a problem like casual employment?


In this issue 1

Defend and support of higher education Alison Barnes, NTEU National President


In search of the vaccine for insecure work Michael Evans, National Organiser (Media & Engagement)

4 Cover image from the NTEU’s ‘Where’s the Vaccine for Insecure Work’ seminar, 19 March 2021. Design by Maryann Long.

What’s in Labor’s ‘Secure Australian Jobs Plan’ for casuals? Dr Terri MacDonald, Director (Policy & Research), NTEU

5 6

Senate Inquiry into Job Security How casual became predictable David Peetz, Griffith University


How do you solve a problem like casual employment? Sarah Roberts, Assistant Secretary, Victorian Division

10 Punitive admin practices lead to lost income for OET assessors Serena O’Meley, Division Industrial Officer, NTEU Victoria

11 Member profile: Ben Madden 12 Challenging the casualisation of academia Ellen Smith, La Trobe University

15 Delegate profile: Bill Pascoe 16 COVID, casuals & workplace safety Anastasia Kanjere, La Trobe University

18 CAPA looking ahead at 2021 for casuals Errol Phuah, CAPA President

19 The state of insecure work in higher ed Kieran McCarron, NTEU Policy & Research Officer

20 Edtech to the rescue? Platforms, digital labour & the casualisation of academic work Dr Mariya Ivancheva, Dr Aline Courtois, Prof Dr Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela

22 Casualisation in higher ed is good for business: Get over it Maximilian J Hommel & Ulrich Hommel

Connect is a publication of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). All rights reserved ©2021 ISSN 1836-8522 (Print)/ISSN 1836-8530 (Online)



Read online at Editor: Alison Barnes Production: Paul Clifton Editorial Assistance: Anastasia Kotaidis

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

NTEU National Office PO Box 1323, South Melbourne VIC 3205 phone 03 9254 1910 email The views expressed in this publication are those of the individual authors, and not necessarily the official views of NTEU. In accordance with NTEU policy to reduce our impact on the natural environment, this magazine is printed on 100% recycled paper: produced from 65% postconsumer waste and 35% pre-consumer waste.

Alison Barnes NTEU National President

Defend and support of higher education Welcome to the first edition of Connect for 2021. This year sees the commencement of bargaining at many of our universities and the prospect of a Federal Election. Now is the time to stand together to demonstrate to both university management and the Federal Government that they must take action and resolve the shocking level of casualisation and precarity that characterise higher education. IR ‘Omnibus’ Bill When COVID first struck in 2020, the Morrison Government convened a series of roundtable discussions involving government, business and union representatives to look at possible changes to Australia’s industrial relations system, that might make it better cope with the difficulties arising from the pandemic. That whole disappointing process came to an ignominious end on 18 March 2021 when the Senate passed a much watered-down version of the ‘Omnibus’ Bill, first revealed in December 2020.

• A provision that enable courts to offset any casual loading paid to an employee against any amount being claimed as permanent employment entitlements, where a court deems that an employee has been wrongly classified as casual. These new laws will only entrench the use of casual employment, not reduce it. While there is now a definition of casual work, the


We need to work with those in Parliament prepared to defend and support higher education and casual employees more broadly.

As ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said at the time the Bill first became public, it blindsided unions as it contained provisions that hadn’t even be discussed with them, let alone agreed to. The ACTU and unions agreed to oppose the Bill in its entirety from the moment it was first released.

In the end, four of the five provisions in the Bill were ditched by the Government after its attempts to get at least three crossbench Senators to vote for all aspects of it failed. This included provisions aimed at reducing wage theft, which would have increased penalties for employers committing wage theft and made it easier for workers to claim stolen wages back. It was the only part of the Bill that was agreed by unions and employers. The provisions would have been passed by the Senate if the Government hadn’t withdrawn them in a temper tantrum, almost out of spite because it couldn’t get support for the rest of the Bill.

Casual employment entrenched The only part of the Bill that survived was the provisions around casual employment. These include: • Inserting into the legislation, for the first time, a legal definition of casual work. • A casual conversion ‘entitlement’ to be inserted into the National Employment Standards in the Fair Work Act.

legislation says that a worker can simply be deemed a casual by the employer regardless of the nature of the work. The so-called conversion ‘entitlement’ offers no real relief, as any request for conversion can be refused on ‘reasonable grounds’, making the commitment probably unenforceable.

We need to defend and support higher education The Government’s failure to deal with the scourge of insecure work across our economy points to the need to organise at our Branches in preparation for bargaining. We need to work with those in Parliament prepared to defend and support higher education and casual employees more broadly. To kick off our campaign to ensure that the voices of casuals from our sector are heard, we held a successful online seminar ‘Where’s the Vaccine for Insecure Work?’ on 19 March. Over 170 participants heard from ALP Senator Tony Sheldon and Greens MP Adam Bandt about the current Senate Inquiry into Insecure Work and, most importantly, how NTEU members are telling their compelling stories of the injustices and inequality of insecure work (see report, p. 2). I hope you enjoy reading this issue of Connect!.

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Michael Evans National Organiser (Media & Engagement)

In search of the vaccine for insecure work In the lead-up to finalising the Union’s submission to the Senate Inquiry into Insecure Work, over 170 NTEU members and supporters attended our online seminar entitled ‘Where’s the Vaccine For Insecure Work?’ on 19 March. The seminar was an opportunity to hear from Labor Senator Tony Sheldon, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Job Security, and Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt, the Greens’ Workplace Relations spokesperson, about the pressing issues around insecure work and how to confront them. They joined NTEU National President Dr Alison Barnes. ‘Good jobs give you a good economy, not the other way round,’ Senator Sheldon told the seminar. He highlighted how critical the university sector is to the Australian economy, especially during and in the aftermath of COVID-19. Tony described the evolution of the gig economy as a ‘disruption of decency’ and said that casual workers should have some rights and security within that context, and especially the right to speak out about their situation without their employment being threatened. Adam Bandt said it was critically important that the billions of dollars stripped out of higher education over the last ten years be restored, and that this is a


crucial issue to addressing insecure work in the sector. He said that the trend over the last 30 to 40 years has been that the element of risk in employment and the economy had been shoved downwards onto workers, hence the steady rise of insecure work. Adam called for the law to be changed so that the legal presumption was that every job is ongoing by default, unless the employer can justify why it shouldn’t be. He also said that the Fair Work Commission (FWC) should have the power to move casual workers to ongoing positions if that is the nature of the work performed. He urged participants to get involved to change the government at the next election, as this was the most realistic way to achieve change around insecure work, and agreed that future funding increases could be potentially tied to improving job security.


Good jobs give you a good economy, not the other way round

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Seminar guest speakers (from top) Dr Alison Barnes, Labor Senator Tony Sheldon and Greens Leader Adam Bandt.

Participants were then divided into several ‘breakout’ groups to highlight the problem of insecure work in higher education and the human impact it is having on staff, by sharing their stories about how insecure work has affected them, and to share their opinions about what needs to change. Participants were also asked to send in a short video, volunteer to appear as witness at the parliamentary inquiry, or discuss their story further. The seminar’s discussion and follow-up will inform the content of our submission, due at the end of March. Alison Barnes wound up proceedings by referring back to the seminar’s original question – ‘where’s the vaccine for insecure work?’ ‘Ultimately the answer to the question is – us, union members working together to use our strength to force change.


We want to tell the stories of people who experience insecure work, as well as the wider stories of the impacts on the culture and fabric of universities and on society more broadly. ‘As the next enterprise bargaining round looms this year, we must focus on building our workplace structures and our delegate networks. We need to grow our workplace strength by asking our friends and colleagues to stand with us and join the Union.

‘We want to tell the stories of people who experience insecure work, as well as the wider stories of the impacts on the culture and fabric of universities and on society more broadly. ‘Please be a part of this if you can.’

‘We have bargaining claims on a range of measures to confront insecure work, including a claim for paid sick leave for all casual employees.

Top: Seminar participants on the Zoom screen. Right: Participants in one of the breakout groups.

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What’s in Labor’s ‘Secure Australian Jobs Plan’ for casuals?

Dr Terri MacDonald Director (Policy & Research)

In February, Federal Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese launched the ALP’s industrial relations policy, called Labor’s Secure Australian Jobs Plan, that many expect will be taken to the next Federal Election. The plan pledges that Labor will: • Make job security an object of the Fair Work Act 2009 so that it becomes a core focus for the Fair Work Commission. • Extend the powers of the Fair Work Commission to include “employee-like” forms of work, allowing it to better protect people in new forms of work, like appbased gig work, from exploitation and dangerous working conditions. • Legislate a fair, objective test to determine when a worker can be classified as a casual so people have a clearer pathway to permanent work. • Limit the number of consecutive fixedterm contracts an employer can offer for the same role, with an overall cap of 24 months. • Ensure a Labor Government is a model employer by creating more secure employment in the Australian Public Service where temporary forms of work are being used inappropriately. • Use government procurement powers to ensure taxpayers’ money is used to support secure employment.


NTEU has long fought to curb the growing proliferation of insecure employment in higher education. We are pleased to see that Labor has identified insecure work as a major policy area and have responded directly to the ALP regarding their jobs plan.

domestic student tuition contributions (via HECS-HELP). However, the situation is set to become far worse. The Government’s most recent changes, via the Job Ready Graduates (JRG) policy, force universities to teach more

Background Insecure employment is now the primary form of employment in the higher education sector. With around 65% of university employees employed on an insecure basis (43% as casual and 22% on fixed-term contracts), only one in three university employees has a secure job.


NTEU has long fought to curb the growing proliferation of insecure employment in higher education. We are pleased to see that Labor has identified insecure work as a major policy area

The growth in insecure employment has occurred at the same time as the Federal Government has reduced its proportion of public funding in higher education; in 2012, Commonwealth Grant Scheme funds contributed 25.6% of university funding, but by 2019 that had fallen to 20.6%. The growth in funding has been in international student fees and in

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

students with less government funding (on average) per student. The JRG also confines this funding to teaching only, when previously it could also support the research that underpins university teaching. Combined with the effects of mass job losses in the sector resulting from the COVID-19 collapse of the international student education market, these changes

will see universities expand even further on casual forms of employment. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the inequalities in higher education employment that existed prior to the crisis. However, instead of addressing the problems and working with the sector to resolve them, the Government has further exacerbated the crisis in Australia’s higher education sector. Secure jobs in higher education are needed for quality teachers and researchers. Secure jobs are also needed to ensure we have safe workplaces for both staff and students. In short, secure jobs are vital to ensure the future of Australia’s public universities and TAFEs.

Casual employment NTEU agrees with the ALP that casual employment should be defined. That said, casual and short-term contract work is commonplace in higher education, but is unlike other forms of insecure employment in other sectors.

months service’, primarily as a result of the nature of their employment being semesterby-semester – despite many employees having worked at a single institution on rolling contracts for years. We are therefore looking to discuss alternative ways to address this issue and improve the pathway to secure employment.

Portable leave & limiting consecutive contracts NTEU welcomes Labor’s proposal for portable leave entitlements for casual employees, noting that this would have been of benefit during the COVID-19 crisis. We are also generally supportive of Labor’s proposed measure to limit the number of consecutive contracts an employer can offer for the same role, although we note that universities are adept at gaming systems, and there may need to be mechanisms in place to prevent employer misuse.

At the end of last year, the Senate Select Committee on Job Security announced it would be holding an inquiry and called for submissions by Wednesday 31 March 2021.

Government as model employer

Led by Senator Tony Sheldon as Chair (with Senator Matthew Canavan as Deputy Chair) the Committee is due to table its final report on 30 November 2021.

While public universities are not the public sector, NTEU would be supportive if Labor included agreements and arrangements between government and universities: in particular, research and project work.

While casual work in the higher education sector is often relatively predictable, required for an indefinite period of time and more or less ongoing, it can be described as ‘intermittent’ because work is arranged by semesters, with each semester’s work being a separate engagement. This is similar to primary and We are also generally supportive secondary teachers who have of Labor’s proposed measure to limit the same issue – they are engaged regularly, on a pattern the number of consecutive contracts an for the period of the term, but employer can offer for the same role, not during school holidays.


Because of this, attempts at defining casual employment often overlook, or are not broad enough to include, the circumstances of employment found in universities.

although we note that universities are adept at gaming systems...

We would like to see how insecure employment as it exists in the higher education sector could be addressed as part of Labor’s Secure Australian Jobs policy. While often described as ‘intermittent’, the Union’s research has shown that there are clear patterns of employment for casual and short-term contract staff; 90% of casual (academic) university employees report being employed more than one year and 62% being employed for over three years. The statistics are similar for professional staff; 72% had been employed for more than one year, 28% for more than three years.

Casual Conversion proposal The ALP has also flagged in this policy that it is looking at options for casual conversion. While we support measures to address insecure employment through casual conversion, the current approach would not be a clear-cut solution for the higher education sector. This is because most casual conversion clauses in awards (or as is proposed in the IR Omnibus Bill) do not extend to university employees as they do not qualify for ’12

Senate Inquiry into Job Security

Superannuation While the NTEU has successfully negotiated in university enterprise agreements the payment of 17% superannuation for permanent and fixed-term staff, so far universities have refused to extend the same superannuation entitlement to casual employees, who are paid the Superannuation Guarantee of 9%. Labor’s announcement to defend the increase of the Superannuation Guarantee will assist in our ongoing campaign – which will carry into the upcoming bargaining rounds – of gaining superannuation equity for casual staff. While the Union will be stepping up its focus on insecure work in both the upcoming bargaining rounds as well as in our campaigning efforts, NTEU has welcomed Labor’s focus on this important issue.

The Committee has announced that it intends to hold hearings in capital cities and regional areas across Australia in 2021, and will inquire into and report on, the impact of insecure or precarious employment on the economy, wages, social cohesion and workplace rights and conditions. NTEU is in the process of finalising a submission to the inquiry, focusing on insecure employment in higher education. The Union also hosted an online forum, for those who are and have been employed insecurely in higher education, to determine how we can best tackle the flood of insecure employment in our sector. NTEU has also sent out a survey to the forum participants asking if they want to share their experience of insecure employment and have it included in our submission. We hope to make it clear that, with only one out of three jobs in higher education permanent, the flood of insecure employment is having a detrimental impact not only for our sector, but on the lives of many of those who work within in. For more information on the inquiry contact the NTEU Policy and Research Unit at, or visit Business/Committees/Senate/Job_ Security/JobSecurity

NTEU’s lobbying focus remains on both improving industrial rights and protections around insecure employment as well as turning the tide on the flood of casual employment in higher education.

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How casual became


Image: Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash

For decades, employees defined as a casual by their employer weren’t entitled to paid annual leave or sick leave. Their employment contract effectively lasted for one shift, and they could be eased out with almost no notice. An employer who wanted to avoid invoking unfair dismissal laws – which technically only apply to those ‘employed on a regular and systematic basis’ – could simply reduce the casual’s hours, perhaps to zero.

David Peetz Griffith University


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®®® How casual became predictable Casuals were unlikely to join a union, partly because of the higher potential chance of losing their job and partly because both their attachment to work and the financial stakes were lower. Without unions, their power declined even further, leaving a power imbalance that employers could take advantage of. Casuals were generally paid at a lower rate than their ‘permanent’ equivalents, especially in low-paid occupations.

All that changed quite recently. One day, a leave-deprived employee in the mining industry took his former employer to court seeking compensation for unpaid leave. He won. In effect, the court said that the employee was not a genuine casual, and had to be paid for the leave he was owed. The company took the matter to appeal, and lost. Another leave-deprived employee took the company to court, and again the company lost.

Companies also used casual employment as a low-wage pathway into permanent positions. In the mining industry, for example, companies used labour-hire workers alongside permanent employees, full-time, doing identical work. Although these ‘contractors’ were paid substantially less than the mining companies’ own workers, they were rostered like any other employee. They knew, up to a year or more in advance, what time they would be working on which days. After a while, some of them were selected to be permanent employees.

This is the origin of the omnibus employment bill recently introduced into parliament by the Federal Government but unlikely to be voted on for several months. Employer organisations had a long wish list for industrial relations reform, but most of all they wanted to overturn these decisions. Another appeal is to be determined by the High Court, but the employer organisations don’t want to risk the outcome.


Thousands of people, classed as casuals, deprived of leave, worked to the same patterns year after year.

In this way, casual employment – either through labour hire or directly with the mining company – became the only way most blue-collar workers could get a permanent job in the industry. Less fortunate ‘contractors’ might work on mine sites for many years without becoming permanent.

Other industries varied in their use of longterm casuals. Universities, for example, used sessional teachers for five, ten or more years. Nationally, at any point in time, around 340,000 casuals had been with their employer for at least five years. Forty thousand had been with their employer for more than twenty years. Thousands of people, classed as casuals, deprived of leave, worked to the same patterns year after year. So, casual employment was not especially about flexibility of work. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed that most casuals expected to be with their employer in a year’s time, and at least half worked the same hours week to week. Their working arrangements weren’t a response to any employer’s need to flexibly deploy labour over short periods in a variety of situations. They were cheap, stable, disposable and easily controlled. Not that employers often did dispose of that labour. It was easier to hang on to it. But the option of reducing hours, or cutting off all work, gave the employer substantial power over these employees. The one thing that united casuals was that they had no leave entitlements. They were better described as ‘leave-deprived employees.’

A key element in the omnibus bill would render that appeal irrelevant by enshrining the employers’ right to define someone as casual. If they do that when the worker’s employment begins, and make clear there is no promise of continuing employment, then the employee is indisputably a casual. That’s the case even if continuing employment follows. The employee is without leave entitlements, and can have his or her hours cut, or cut out, on a whim. But the bill does hold out the prospect of a better life. If, after a period of twelve months, employees want ‘permanent’ status, they can ask for it, and the employer should grant their wish unless there are reasonable business grounds not to. Casual employees can at least take that question to court, if they have the money. Some see this, or at least a variant of this, as the key to overcoming the chronic insecurity of casuals. Some want a stronger right for employees to convert from casual to permanent status after a defined period. They point to the fact that the bill’s provisions don’t adequately prioritise employee interests, and make appeals too expensive. But there are problems with seeing the issue in this way. First, the stronger the right, the stronger the incentive for employers to cut casuals’ hours, or sack them, before the designated date. This is, for example, what I saw

happening in Korea. ‘Temporary’ and ‘dispatched’ workers (mostly women) had access to additional rights after twelve months’ employment, so employers would sack them after eleven months, or swap them between employers. Second, and perhaps fearing this fate, some casuals may decide not to take their chances by asking to change status. The concept of ‘choice’ can be problematic when it is constrained, especially for leave-deprived employees. A third, probably bigger, matter is that many leave-deprived workers become financially dependent on the casual loading (if they get it). This 25% premium on their ordinary pay is intended to compensate for their lack of entitlements or security. When you’re on a low income, that extra amount can make a big difference. This shouldn’t be ignored. Other countries don’t allow employers to buy out of their obligation to provide annual leave, and nor should Australia. The challenge is to find a way to overcome that inequity while preserving the interests of this low-paid group. A way forward would be to allow every employee access to paid annual leave and sick leave, regardless of their status and proportionate to the duration of their job. They would also have access to protection against unfair dismissal. Employees who have no guarantee of minimum weekly hours would still be paid a loading. At present, the majority (71%) of leave-deprived workers with variable hours have no guarantee of a minimum number of hours, but that proportion would fall if employers had to pay a loading for workers without the guarantee. Existing leavedeprived workers could be protected by a ‘grandfathering’ clause, which would allow them to keep the current casual loading if that’s what they want. In this way, the casual loading would shift from being a compensation for loss of entitlements and security to being a genuine compensation for unpredictable hours. It would be an unpredictability loading rather than a casual loading. Over time, the casual loading would become less common and the unpredictability loading would take its place for those people who really are employed for short and irregular periods. Work would be more secure. And almost everybody would have a right to a paid annual holiday. David Peetz is Professor of Employment Relations in the Griffith Business School at Griffith University and an NTEU member. This article was originally published in Inside Story, 17 Dec 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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How do you solve a problem like

casual employment?

Over the last 20 years, casual employment in Australian universities has grown dramatically. The problem is particularly acute in the casual academic area. Most recent research has estimated casual academic employment as comprising around 50% of all teaching performed in Australian universities.

Recent statistics from Victorian university annual reports reinforce this, with up to 73% of all employees on a headcount basis insecurely employed, of which we know the majority are casual. In 1999, on a Full Time Equivalent (FTE) basis, there were 82,233 FTE in the sector, with 12,670 FTE or 15.4% casual. Fast forward to 2019 (last available data set from DESE), and we have 137,578 FTE in the sector with 24,873 FTE or 18% casual. Added to this, we know that for each FTE we should count 4-5 employees on a headcount basis, given that each casual performs less than a full-time load.

No pay over teaching breaks, no access to sick leave and no capacity to take out loans or own their own home, are only a few of the myriad disadvantages casuals experience. Many casual academics are also stuck on a teaching treadmill with little or no access to an academic career, having completed their PhD but still unable to obtain a permanent teaching and research job. This is because while the sector has grown substantially over the last 20 years, almost two-thirds of that growth has been in insecure work.

Sarah Roberts Assistant Secretary, Victorian Division


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On the numbers, casual academic employment is no longer a realistic ‘apprenticeship’ with a clear pathway to an ongoing teaching and research role. That dream has died. Instead, more and more casual academics find themselves trapped in ‘permanent casual’ roles for years. Finally, casuals experience chronic underpayment of wages, which has been well documented both by our Union and in the media.

Casual employment is cheap & baked into the university funding model

Why is this a problem?

There is dwindling access to permanent teaching and research roles, with only a quarter of doctoral graduates

able to obtain employment in academic positions on completion of their PhD.

Casual employment is significantly cheaper than fixed term or ongoing employment because there is no allowance for leave and the hourly rate of pay is effectively lower. Added to this, on-costs are comparatively low. Also, over the last 20 years, there has been a real decline in the real rate of government funding for teaching and research, meaning increased reliance on casual employment as a cheap form of university labour. Accordingly, ...employers employers have strongly strongly resisted our


have claims to securitise casual employment or to put an effective limit on its use.

®®® How do you solve a problem like casual employment?

Casual employment is ‘flexible’ Because casual employment is technically by the hour, it does not carry with it any penalty to the employer for termination. There are no redundancy payouts or balance of contract payouts to worry about. At the same time, the casual academic workforce in particular has proven itself as a pool of highly skilled experts, many with PhDs and years of teaching experience. Thus, there is little if any disadvantage to the employer in opting for casual employment over contract or permanent when engaging a new employee. Further, once casual wage theft is taken into account, because of their precarious employment, casuals perform many hours of unpaid labour, casual employment is a very attractive option to an employer.


So what should the Union’s goal be in bargaining?

At the end of 2020, NTEU’s National Council met to discuss these and other potential claims in bargaining. The Union agreed to pursue claims around ensuring casuals are paid for the work they perform, as well as increased superannuation and sick leave. The National Tertiary Casuals Committee is also assessing the options for further claims to improve the job security of casuals in our sector in a meaningful and determinative way. For more information on bargaining and how you can get involved, contact your local Branch:

The Union agreed to pursue claims around ensuring casuals are paid for the work they perform, as well as increased superannuation and sick leave.

In considering how to address casual employment in Round 8 bargaining, clearly we should be aiming to improve the security of employment for existing casual staff who desire it, and to improve opportunities for secure employment for future staff.

An associated question is whether we could also be aiming to improve the potential career path for casual employees, especially casual academics. In considering this we must have regard to the nature of higher education funding and our relative power within the system.

Image: Toby Cotton

Casual University Employees, 1991–2019 as % of total FTE 20%




16% 14%


12% 10% 8%

1991 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 2000 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 2010 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 2019

resisted our claims to securitise casual employment or to put an effective limit on its use.

Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment Higher Education Staff Statistics, 1991-2019

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Punitive admin practices lead to lost income for OET assessors

Serena O’Meley Division Industrial Officer, NTEU Victoria

A number of changes to the administration of the Occupational English Test (OET) has led to significant loss of income for assessors and increased work-related stress. Assessors are campaigning for a range of measures that will regularise their earnings and put an end to their employment being suspended for months at a time. OET is a highly regarded English language test designed for health professionals who wish to register and practice in an Englishspeaking environment. It is owned and run by a joint venture between Cambridge English and Box Hill Institute. A pool of professionally trained assessors mark up to four components of the test: Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing. Many assessors have a primary job at a university, TAFE or private higher education provider, and supplement their income with OET marking. For others, the marking is their only source of income, especially now that there have been large job losses across the higher education sector. They are contracted as ‘casual’ staff but many have worked for the company and its predecessors for decades. Three years ago, staff were redeployed to work from home and do so using their own computer equipment. The shift to an online system has placed staff into competition with each other to get enough papers to mark. Papers frequently go live overnight which means that many staff miss out on work, especially if they have family responsibilities, health issues or can’t work through the night after a long day at another job. The vast majority of members would prefer a marking curfew at night and minimum allocations of papers to mark.

have reported a substantial increase in the number of times they are being flagged as marking too ‘leniently’ or too ‘severely’ which they put down to system changes rather than changes in their performance.

that the loss of income was ‘very concerning’ or ‘catastrophic’. The median loss of income for assessors is between $5,000-$10,000 in a year, but for some it is tens of thousands of dollars more.

Being flagged can have a devastating impact upon a staff member’s earning capacity. Not only do they need to wait for the self-access test materials to be made available to them online, but they have also been arbitrarily banned from the marking system for weeks at a time even though they have passed the self-access module.

As one assessor has said:

If they do not pass or are found to be non-standard in two test administrations in succession, they are banned from marking until the next standardisation session takes place, which could be several months. Members see both processes as punitive, and by the time they are returned to the system any value from the retraining has been lost. Out of 71 respondents to a survey undertaken by NTEU, just 6% were ‘unconcerned’ about the impact on their income from being banned, while 75% said


Working from home has led to a sense of isolation so the Union has become an important means for helping members to respond collectively to workplace change which, in turn, has led to significant membership growth in the ACE & Companies Branch.

The vast majority of members would prefer a marking curfew at night and minimum allocations of papers to mark.

Quality control or punishment? OET places understandable emphasis upon quality control through a process of training followed by annual standardisation. A ‘selfaccess’ module to facilitate remediation is used for an assessor to re-standardise if they don’t meet test administration scoring standards. Strangely, the process appears to measure the performance of assessors against each other, instead of against objective marking criteria. Over the past year many members


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‘I hope there will be a change in attitude towards assessors and that OET will realise they can’t function without us. We feel a strong lack of respect for our expertise. Is there another industry where workers are banned from working and punished by withholding the jobs?’ After much exchange of correspondence between NTEU and the company, management has quietly reduced the initial ban on marking to one test administration. At this stage, they are resisting calls to make the self-access test available on demand, and return staff to the marking pool immediately upon passing the test. Alternatively, they could follow the advice of the Association of Language Testers in Europe and make statistical corrections to severe or lenient marking. It’s been extraordinary to see the lengths that company representatives have gone to avoid meeting with staff and their union. NTEU is seeking a meeting to discuss the results of its survey with a view to addressing a range of staff concerns in a productive and systematic manner, and in a spirit of co-operation. We trust that the company will listen to the concerns of their staff and take us up on this offer. Image: fotografierende/Pexels

Member profile:

Ben Madden I have been teaching in the University of Adelaide’s Department of English and Creative Writing as a casual academic since 2017, when I returned to Australia from China, where I had been lecturing at the Beijing Foreign Studies University since 2015. At the same time as I teach and convene across a wide range of courses, I have also been eking out a career as a researcher, producing a steady stream of publications in academic journals and even some public-facing essays and reviews. I know many readers will have a similar experience of being spread across a variety of different jobs and activities, some remunerated, some not, and know the strain of piecing together a jigsaw career, semester by semester. Needless to say, it is challenging to sustain an overarching intellectual project in these circumstances, but that is what those of us who feel an academic vocation must do—in my case, this means writing a scholarly monograph. Being a casual affords access to some of the resources one needs to carry this out, but without the benefit of it being considered part of one’s official workload. Yet, when these projects come to fruition, they nonetheless reflect positively on the universities in which we are precariously lodged. For the average casual, and certainly for me, these contradictions only multiply the longer one spends in the institution. As I’ve said, the bulk of my (remunerated) work for the University has been teaching and marking. What surprised me when I began, and continues to surprise me today, is the absence of clear channels for casuals to relay their own experience of and feedback on teaching. I don’t know that this is the case across the sector, but I suspect it must be widespread. Casuals are often left to make sense of student feedback alone, and unless we have the good fortune of committed mentors (effectively volunteering their time), reflecting on and improving our practice falls to us. Formal processes for professional development are reserved for continuing staff. The institution’s standpoint is probably that giving casuals structured processes for feedback and professional development would amount to a promissory note for

an academic career that may or may not arrive. But in the absence of them, a great deal of lived experience, not to mention the novelty and innovation that younger scholars can inject into their teaching, is lost. These are just some of the problems that arise from our half-in, half-out status. I had grappled with this intellectually for some time, but it didn’t fully hit me at an emotional level until, a couple of years ago, the University announced that all staff would be eligible for free flu shots—except for casuals.


That was when it struck me that, in spite of the sector’s ever-increasing reliance on us, its decision-makers would often prefer to think and act as if we don’t exist.

That is, the people who take on an ever-increasing share of the institution’s teaching and hence have the highest levels of person-to-person contact. That was when it struck me that, in spite of the sector’s ever-increasing reliance on us, its decision-makers would often prefer to think and act as if we don’t exist. Colleagues of mine protested this insulting exclusion directly to the Vice-Chancellor, and the following year we were eligible for our jabs. I have been the beneficiary of remarkable support and goodwill at the local level of my institution, of which this is a fairly trivial example.

But what has become increasingly apparent to me over time is that local goodwill won’t change the unfair structures of work or resolve the yawning contradictions within our higher education sector. The only thing that can do that is workers across the sector organising, demonstrating solidarity, and fighting to rebuild our institutions along lines of fairness, inclusion, and sustainability. That’s why I joined the NTEU.

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021


Challenging the casualisation of academia

Image: NTEU member Dylan Griffiths attending the 2018 May Day march in Sydney (N Clark).

Last year, as the tertiary education sector reeled from the impacts of COVID-19, the University of Melbourne quietly agreed to pay millions in unpaid wages to casual teaching staff. The settlement came after the NTEU launched proceedings with the Fair Work Ombudsman, alleging wage theft by the university. And it was sizeable – an estimated $6 million in the arts faculty alone, paid to staff for work dating back to 2014.

Ellen Smith La Trobe University


Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

®®® Challenging the casualisation of academia Despite the size of the payout though, the Melbourne University case received little attention – nothing on the scale of the headline-grabbing wage theft cases at 7-Eleven, Domino’s Pizza or George Calombaris’s restaurant empire. Claimants were paid what they asked for and sent a letter of apology by the University, but then it seemed things returned to business as usual. And, to the detriment of casuals in other universities around Australia, it did not set a legal precedent.

As someone who has worked both as a casual academic and on contract at a number of different universities, I can confidently say wage theft occurs in almost every part of the job.

market, the numbers are likely higher today. The NTEU has revealed that at some universities, including the University of Melbourne, more than 70% of all staff are in insecure employment.

Lectures are misclassified as tutorials and tutorials as ‘practice classes’ so staff can be paid at a lower hourly rate than they are entitled. Casual academics hired to ‘co‑ordinate’ subjects find they have to write the subject content from scratch, before they even have a contract.

Last year, to get a snapshot of the problem at their institution, 19 academics in the University of Sydney’s casuals network recorded the actual time worked over a six-week period. It totalled 753 unpaid hours. The worst underpayment was for administrative tasks, where staff were only paid one hour for every six hours worked, on average. Overall, 43% of work performed went unpaid.

Managers across the university sector Woefully inadequate hours are allocated deny there is a systemic problem with for marking, preparing tutorials and writing underpayment of casual teaching staff. In lectures. Although the hours are often its submission to the continuing Senate based on rates set out in the institution’s Inquiry into Unlawful Underpayment of Enterprise Agreement, negotiated between Employees’ Remuneration, the Australian management and the NTEU, they radically Higher Education Industrial Association – underestimate the time and skill involved in the employer body for Australia’s higher teaching at the university level. Hour-long education sector – says it ‘takes exception lectures, for example, are often allocated to the NTEU’s unsubstantiated assertions three hours for writing and delivery – eight that Australian universities operate under to 10 hours would be more realistic. a ‘business model’ that involves the deliberate underpayment of their staff’. However, it is worth noting that despite the fact the Senate inquiry was set up as a response to the highly publicised cases of wage theft It is notoriously difficult to in retail and hospitality, 14 of get an accurate picture of just how the 121 submissions related to casual employment at much teaching is done by casuals universities.


in Australian universities, because the universities do not make this information public.

Everyone who’s worked in Australia’s universities knows the allegations levelled against Melbourne University represent not only standard practice across the sector but are also just the tip of the iceberg. In the past 12 months, at least 10 Australian universities have faced wage theft allegations – including the University of Sydney, RMIT University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland – and as we move into a new academic year, there will probably be more. One of the major dysfunctions of today’s universities is that the people who do what the public think of as the core work of these institutions – that is, teaching undergraduates – are the most marginal and most precariously employed.

But underpayment is not the only problem. Much of the work actually involved in running and teaching a university subject – student consultations, planning meetings, administration, maintaining online learning systems, curriculum development and more – is not paid for at all, because it is often not included in casual contracts. It is notoriously difficult to get an accurate picture of just how much teaching is done by casuals in Australian universities, because the universities do not make this information public. A 2008 report found it was between 50% and 80%; if we look at casualisation trends in the broader labour

Casualisation creates a yawning divide among teaching staff at universities. In my experience as a casual – working what was in reality a heavy full-time teaching load – the take-home pay was about $40,000 a year. Compare this with a permanent entry-level lecturer, who will be on a salary of about $100,000, plus leave entitlements and 17% superannuation. Casuals do not receive holiday, sick or carer’s leave, and are paid a lower rate of superannuation – 9.5%. They are given no research funding or support and don’t need to be paid during non-teaching periods. And, as was brought into sharp relief by the mass firings at Australian universities last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have no job security. But casualisation saves universities a great deal of money and, despite their claims to the contrary, it has become part of the business strategy of these institutions. However, it’s important to acknowledge that these practices, while set in place by management, are also enabled by a massive status divide between the casual teaching staff and the well-paid permanent academic staff who hire casuals, allocate the work, sign off on their contracts and pay claims. Many do so in line with the conditions of the Enterprise Agreement, which although woeful are at least legal. But others, under pressure to produce research, will palm off some of their teaching responsibilities onto casuals. While on paper a permanent staff member may be responsible for curriculum development, a casual may in fact do continued overpage...

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021


®®® Challenging the casualisation of academia

....continued from previous page the lion’s share of this work without pay – writing the assessments, developing the reading lists, liaising with the library and so on. Even well-meaning faculty members are unable to ensure casuals are paid for all the work they do, as the departmental casual budget won’t allow it. So, they will say to the casual, ‘Just don’t give it too much time’ or ‘Make sure you stick to your hours’, even though they know it is impossible to do the work in the allocated hours. As a teacher you can’t turn up to a lecture theatre with only 20 minutes of material, or stop answering student emails in week six of term because you have used up all the hours in your contract. There is often a clause in casual teaching contracts that says the hours listed are an estimate and may fluctuate. This allows the university to cancel the contract at any time without notice. In theory, it also allows casual staff to claim any hours they work in excess of those assigned in the contract. And according to the Fair Work Award, casual academics are legally entitled to be paid for every hour they work. In practice, this does not happen. I have never heard of a faculty member insisting their casual staff are paid for all work performed. People’s loyalties tend to run up rather than down, and staff who are anxious about their own job security are more likely to obey their managers than defend their casuals. They also know management will say that the money just isn’t in the budget. The fact that casuals are not broadly visible on university campuses makes it easy for even the best-intentioned faculty to turn a blind eye to wage theft. Casuals are rarely given office space. They prepare their classes at home, turn up to teach and then leave. It is much easier to believe that someone wrote a lecture in two hours – or designed a course in five minutes, as I once heard a permanent staff member say – if you don’t see them at their desk at 10pm, or hear them talking in the corridor about how overworked they are. Casuals are not invited to faculty meetings, nor are they offered training or professional development. They don’t go to the student graduation ceremonies and are often not even invited to staff Christmas parties. In some ways, casuals are complicit in their own exploitation. Up until now, casual staff have tended to enter the allocated hours into their time sheet, not the actual hours worked, which would be required for a legal challenge to the university. They also perform tasks that go well beyond those that they’ve been explicitly asked to


do, such as reading drafts, answering emails on the weekend, offering student consultations and writing references.


The fact that casuals are not broadly visible on university campuses makes it easy for even the bestintentioned faculty to turn a blind eye to wage theft.

Partly this is the result of their professionalism and commitment to being good teachers and mentors, despite the conditions they labour under. Partly it is about job insecurity. Casuals fear if they complain they won’t be offered any more work. But it is also because of a delusion that if they work really hard, they will get a permanent job. This delusion is a leftover from an earlier time, when casual tutoring was seen as an apprenticeship to a career in the university. There is no longer a pathway from casual teaching to a permanent salaried teaching and research position in Australian universities. In fact, doing too much casual teaching can make you less employable, earning you the brand of a teaching workhorse, rather than a research star. One of the major dysfunctions of today’s universities is that the people who do what the public think of as the core work of these institutions – that is, teaching undergraduates – are the most marginal and most precariously employed. These core workers are not seen by management or most permanent staff as employees of the university at all. But the truth is that today’s universities could not function without their casual workforce, and this presents an industrial opportunity for casuals. That the University of Melbourne was so quick to settle with its casuals suggests they know this. If casuals across the sector follow suit and challenge the entrenched practices at their own institutions, Australia’s universities will be in deep trouble. Ellen Smith teaches English literature at La Trobe University, and is an NTEU member. This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on 30 Jan 2021 as ‘Casual wage theft par for the course’. Reprinted with permission. thesaturdaypaper.

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

Delegate profile:

Bill Pascoe It’s sad to see all that the union movement has achieved eroded over the last 30 years, especially when it’s taken hundreds of years to fight for what quality of life and fair working conditions we have. It’s time to turn things around. I work in digital humanities and so my work is both academic and professional, but I am employed as professional staff. I began working with my current employer – the University of Newcastle – in 2002 in a full time ongoing role, but I was put on a contract just before I was due for long service leave. For almost 10 years I have been working de facto full time, in multiple casual and contract positions, often in three to five jobs at once, all on different terms, from a few days to a year.

love for the work itself, in spite of everything my employer does to stop me doing it! I can only fit a few examples of many problems here. What is written in policy and Agreements has little correspondence with reality and amidst the chaos there is no way to keep track. Recently, it turned out the University owed me $20,000 in wage theft, out of around $6 million they owed to staff overall, which I wouldn’t have known if not for a review prompted by the Union’s vigilance.

The work is often needed before the University can process appointments and after end dates set according to the needs of book-keeping. The reason given is that it is grant funded, but so many other jobs exist to support research, and the University would not exist if there was no research. If I say a project is underfunded, they say that’s all that’s in the budget, so I have no choice but to Recently, it turned out the University accept it or be out owed me $20,000 in wage theft ...which I of work. I always wouldn’t have known if not for a review have more work that I can do yet prompted by the Union’s vigilance. I’m always looking for more.


Because I don’t get a job if we don’t get grants, I’m incentivised to win grants. As professional staff I’m not allowed to put my name on grants, so sometimes I find that I conceive the grant, write the grant, do the work on the grant and am rewarded with another threat of unemployment, while the academic whose name went on the application is rewarded with points towards promotion. One year, I contributed at least $3 million of value to the University and was rewarded with the mere opportunity to apply for a $5,000 internal grant to make up the shortfall in days of work until the end of the year. The only thing keeping me here is my

I’m now on a one-year contract. A sixmonth or one-year contract used to be the minimum anyone would accept in IT. Now it is a welcome reprieve. But my main concern is that this situation, which is bad for the worker, bad for the organisation, and counterproductive to the work that needs to be done, doesn’t happen to others. It seems ridiculous that the Union and the University struggle over nuances in full time workers’ conditions when casuals are so desperate, when casualisation and gig work is on the rise, and when full time workers might find themselves casualised at any moment.

Become an NTEU




The very day I write this, two of my colleagues have lost their jobs in yet another restructure. It’s because problems like this are systemic and threaten all of us – and the institution – that individual negotiations are not a solution. We need unions and what they represent: collective action. Good working conditions mean a good standard of living for everyone, and they keep the economy afloat. It’s frustrating to hear people say, ‘We don’t need Unions now because times are good.’ and then ‘Times are bad, so the unions can’t ask too much.’ When times are good, we are in a good position to bargain for fair conditions. When times are bad, we need Unions to fight more than ever to keep those conditions. Get more information about becoming an NTEU Delegate at

Delegates are a vital part of the NTEU, maintaining visibility, supporting recruitment & building the strength of the Union. If you’re interested in becoming a Delegate in your work area, contact your Branch today.

D E L E G AT E S . N T E U. O R G . AU

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021


COVID, casuals & workplace safety

The La Trobe University Casuals Network have been collecting evidence for weeks of the inconsistent, incomplete and often disturbing information being distributed to teaching staff in the lead up to the resumption of face to face teaching.

We had to collect this material through our comrades in permanent and fixed-term positions. As at many universities, casual teaching staff at La Trobe often are unsure about whether they will be required for teaching until the last minute, and, at the point of writing, some of our comrades who have been teaching for the past two weeks have been doing so without any formal contract.

Informal sharing of information Unsurprisingly, therefore, casual teaching staff were completely out of the loop about COVID provisions and only found out through the solidarity of more secure workers who shared the information through informal channels. What we did manage to learn was extremely concerning. Protocols were extremely inconsistent between schools and work areas – itself a cause for concern – but we found evidence of the following: • Staff being tasked with policing students’ compliance to wearing face masks in class and managing social distancing in the classroom – up to and including calling security guards on non-compliant students. This is damaging to the pedagogical relationship all teaching staff strive to build in their classrooms. Requiring students to disclose medical information pertaining to mask wearing – presumably in the classroom and in front of their peers – is an invasion of privacy. Many staff also felt that this responsibility opened them to the potential for harassment or abuse at work. To police students in an already pressured and abnormal environment would only increase stress and tension – no support or training was offered to us in enacting this new responsibility.

Anastasia Kanjere La Trobe University


• Staff being required to clean classrooms after teaching. Teaching staff have no training in this standard of cleaning, nor were any instructions provided on how to

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

check and ensure safety standards are met. The ‘sanitation kit’ (see image) – one of which was made available per staff member per semester – gives a sense of how underequipped teaching staff were to perform these tasks. Furthermore, given that workers for Cirka (the La Trobe cleaning contractor) are currently un- or under-employed, we are concerned about their employment prospects being reduced through a reliance on our unpaid labour. • Staff being expected to instruct students in COVID-19 cleaning of their workspaces – including offering a disposal of waste service for used antibacterial wipes. Some students were told that they should clean their workstations before and after classes – disposing their iso-wipes ‘in the plastic bag provided by your teacher’. This appears to imply that teaching staff were responsible for disposing of waste products. A waste bag is not included in the Sanitation Kit (pictured), nor do we think it is safe or appropriate to ask teaching staff to dispose of potentially contagious materials. • Staff being instructed to examine classrooms for adequate ventilation for COVID-19 safety before classes resume. The managers who made this recommendation were clearly motivated by concern for staff and students – recognising that the University’s haphazard protocols meant that staff might have to take their safety into their own hands. Indeed, several members of the Casuals Network did find themselves assigned to rooms with insufficient space, insufficient seating or both for the size of their tutorials. Notwithstanding the best intentions behind these communications, however, they place an onerous responsibility on already overburdened staff. Needless to say, casual teaching staff have not received training in assessing ventilation or air-flow. Furthermore, given that few casual staff had

®®® COVID, casuals & workplace safety received their timetables and class sizes until days before classes started, this advice added additional stress and anxiety to the start of semester. As can be seen, these communications were inconsistent across – and even within – schools and departments, with some information being directly contradicted within days of being circulated. Besides being told that the majority of tutorials would be held in person, most casual staff received little to no information, let alone training, regarding the extra obligations which this face-to-face teaching will entail. The poor clarification of safety standards posed and continues to pose a significant threat to the safety of staff and students.

Urgent concerns The La Trobe Casuals Network meeting on 22 February 2021 resolved to write a collective statement to the Vice-Chancellor and Senior Executive Group of the University to express our urgent concerns. We also reached out to union comrades for support, and solidarity motions with our concerns were passed from University of Sydney Casuals Network and at the Monash Branch Committee. The motion read: The Monash University Branch Committee of the NTEU express their solidarity with casual teaching staff at La Trobe University, who are returning to face-to-face teaching next week with inadequate safety provisions for COVID transmission. We are disturbed to hear of reports of staff being told they will be responsible for: 1. Policing mask compliance by students – up to and including calling security guards on non compliant students.

contradictory, partial, and usually not even shared with casual staff. This is an unacceptable breach of occupational health and safety and the Monash Branch Committee of the NTEU do not accept this as an appropriate attempt at COVID safety at any university campuses. As the Monash Branch Committee notes, the undermining of health and safety protocols at any institution weakens the rights of workers across the sector. The Herald Sun reported on our concerns on 3 March, with Ian Royall writing ‘Lecturers, researchers and other professional staff fear the liability for a safe environment has been pushed onto them… Academic staff were told to enforce mask-wearing and call security on any objectors. A spokeswoman from the network of hundreds of casuals said staff were shocked. “People are scared and angry and also anxious because it adds to the uncertainty of their jobs.”’ After a significant delay – and just two days after being contacted for comment by the Herald Sun – the Vice-Chancellor responded to the Network. So far, this has consisted of flat denial of all of our concerns – despite these being well documented.


... information about COVID safety is contradictory, partial, and usually not even shared with casual staff.

2. Cleaning their classrooms after teaching. COVID cleaning is work, and as such should be undertaken by paid, trained, appropriately equipped professionals. Given that the United Workers Union has identified that many workers for the current contractor, Cirka, are currently un- or under-employed, this is a case of wage theft for academic casuals and work theft for cleaning casuals.

3. Examining their classrooms for adequate ventilation for COVID safety before classes resume. 4. Instructing students in COVID cleaning of their work spaces 5. Managing social distancing in the classroom.

The minimal information on cleaning arrangements communicated to some casual staff at this time also has implications for wage theft. Expecting teaching staff to undertake significant

cleaning duties requires them to either end class early – meaning students lose critical interaction with their tutor for academic training – or that staff are expected to spend time outside of class engaged in cleaning. Special trips to campus to collect sanitation kits and inspect classrooms are also conducted without pay. Given significant current media and parliamentary attention to the underpayment of casual university workers, we think there is strong momentum for an industrial campaign against this exploitation. The La Trobe Casuals Network will continue to push for safe and dignified working conditions for all workers! Anastasia Kanjere works as a casual teaching academic and research assistant at La Trobe College and La Trobe and Monash Universities. She is Convenor of the La Trobe Casuals Network and an NTEU member.


CORONAVIRUS RECOVERY Uni staff uproar over Covid cleaning orders IAN ROYALL TEACHING staff at La Trobe University are up in arms over being told to check building ventilation, enforce maskwearing and clean shared surfaces as part of the institution’s COVID-safe measures. Employees have slammed the management directions, which also tells them to finish five minutes early to clean

surfaces for the next class. The supply of a modest “sanitation kit” for each staff member and all their students has also raised concerns when semester one started on Monday. The kit includes a reusable cloth, a small bottle of sanitiser, a few wipes and disposable gloves. Lecturers, researchers and other professional staff fear the liability for a safe environment

has been pushed on to them. The local branch of the National Tertiary Education Union and the La Trobe Casuals Network queried the demands by university management for its main campus at Bundoora as well as four sites in regional Victoria. Academic staff were told to enforce mask-wearing and to call security on any objectors. A spokeswoman for the net-

work of hundreds of casuals said staff were shocked. “People are scared and angry and also anxious because it all adds to the uncertainty of their job,” she said. Hundreds of staff were laid off last year as the pandemic hit the university’s bottom line. A La Trobe spokeswoman said the health and safety of students, staff and community remained its top priority.

Casual staff are under-informed – some still are unsure if they will be teaching next week, and information about COVID safety is

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

AD joi ro



Errol Phuah President, Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA)

CAPA looking ahead at 2021 for casuals Greetings Comrades! As my first address to you all, I want to show my appreciation and warm welcome by the NTEU community since starting in January this year as the new National President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) for 2021. We have many challenges to tackle this year as a sector, so a strong working relationship is essential. For the uninitiated, CAPA is a peak representative body for postgraduate students in Australia for 42 years. Where CAPA aligns more closely to NTEU than other peak representative student bodies is that many postgraduate students are also sessional staff. So it’s been quite natural for our interest to align and work together, a relationship we hope to continue for many years to come.

Wage theft CAPA recently provided testimony at the Senate Hearing on Unlawful Underpayment of Employee Remuneration. By representing both casual staff and coursework students, we had the unique opportunity to discuss accounts of wage theft and highlight the links between wage theft and its impact on the quality of education. It was crucial to draw ties back to students as stakeholders and give international students some much-needed limelight.


By representing both casual staff and coursework students, we had the unique opportunity to discuss accounts of wage theft

Research commercialisation We are also staying on top of the consultation for research commercialisation. This is a hot debate that is yet to generate a general consensus, and nothing yet has been set in stone. I cannot stress enough the importance of monitoring this conversation closely. This discussion is a precursor to public research funding reform, and such changes will influence how universities behave and operate in the future. The risk here is that most of the discussions are from those in secure positions (i.e. executives and their advisors). The ideas generated could easily take on the perspective of management. Naturally, these perspectives may not take on our concerns of insecure work, and the dangers are a new research reform that encourages further casualisation of staff.

2021 and beyond Nevertheless, 2021 has a few ongoing agendas to keep an eye on and creates opportunities for lobbying for a better and fairer system. This is why we need to work together and rally with solidarity behind the various campaign fronts this year. Errol Phuah is a Bioengineering PhD student at Swinburne University of Technology and National President of CAPA for 2021.

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Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

The state of insecure work in higher ed

Kieran McCarron NTEU Policy & Research Officer

Australia’s higher education sector employs over 220,000 individuals, the majority of whom are highly educated and highly skilled. Yet, the higher education sector has become heavily reliant on fixed term contract and casual employment – and these forms of employment are growing. The number of casual and fixed term staff in the sector has increased by 89% since 2000, while the number of continuing staff has increased by only 49% over the same period. The NTEU estimates that casual and fixed term staff now account for almost 66% of all persons working in higher education. In 2020 this growing cohort of insecurely employed staff were heavily affected by cost cutting in the sector. While universities have declined to divulge full job loss figures among insecurely employed staff, the NTEU has been able to discover that at least 6,561 casual and fixed term staff have ceased employment in Victoria alone since March 2020. This implies significant job losses cross the country.

University Employees by Contract Share of Number (Headcount), 2000 to 2019 Permanent/Tenurial

Limited Term

Casual (FTE x4)

100% 90% 80%




70% 60% 50% 19.7%



40% 30%


This implies significant job losses cross the country. The NTEU’s 2020 State of the Uni Survey has further revealed that a majority of casual university staff remaining in employment in November have received reduced paid work hours. It appears likely that universities have used their large insecurely employed workforces to cushion themselves from reduced international student income. Higher education workers should not have to bear the financial risks taken on by their institutions or created by the Federal Government’s bare bone funding model. We know that the work done by sessional staff is largely ongoing, their employment should be too.

20% 40.3%



10% 0

2000 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10








18 2019

Work hours received in 2020 compared to 2019 (of those employed in 2020)

Academic Staff


receiving more work


about the same


receiving less work

Professional Staff


receiving more work


about the same


receiving less work

State of the Uni survey

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Edtech to the rescue?

Platforms, digital labour & the casualisation of academic work

Image: Maxim Hopman/Unsplash

Within the emerging critical literature on Edtech in higher education and its impact on academic labour, with rare exceptions, little attention has been paid to the outsourcing of teaching through Online Program Management providers (OPMs), and how it contributes to the casualisation of academic work inside and within traditional university settings. Dr Mariya Ivancheva University of Liverpool, UK

Dr Aline Courtois University of Bath, UK

Prof Dr Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela Universidad de Tarapacá, Chile


Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

®®® Edtech to the rescue? Platforms, digital labour & the casualisation of academic work Scholarship on digital and platform labour in other sectors suggests that the forms of casualisation they encourage are deeply gendered and racialised. Bringing these different spheres of scholarship like critical higher education studies, technologyenhanced learning, and research on platform labour together seems essential to grasp the actual and potential impact of digitalisation on the most vulnerable higher education workers. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online teaching, it is ever more pertinent to ask: are Edtech and OPMs producing ever more de-professionalised low-paid positions, transforming the very social conditions of academic labour in higher education?

Impact of digital technologies on the casualisation of education While research has usually been championed over teaching, students at top-ranked research universities are often taught by precarious faculty and assisted by academically-trained workers in administrative and academic-related positions. These workers (usually women, people with caring responsibilities, and those from lowincome families) are treated as second-class citizens in academia. They gradually fall from academic careers as they cannot fit the norm (usually embodied by men) of careless individuals, available to work 24/7 and travel internationally to avail of networking or funding opportunities. With the introduction of online learning as a means to cut costs, commercially-driven forms of online education have promoted not only the need for new, often time- and labour intensive pedagogies, but also expectations and conditions of teaching that feed into further exploitation and alienation: • The annihilation of space and time (ondemand content accessible anytime from anywhere), the unfettered flow and transmission of knowledge as pure information content, that lead to the standardisation of content and disembodiedness & deskilling of teaching. • A vision of higher education as targeted ‘services’ and microcredentials, ‘nanodegrees’, and ‘bite-size, content’ that student consumers can mix-and-match according to job market demands. • New surveillance mechanisms and expectations for instructors of constant online availability. • Less requirement for physical presence of faculty on campus and thus further pushing out from the ‘real’ academic community of the precarious teaching workforce, as well as requirement for precarious academic to use their own devices, spaces, and facilities. • Persistent particularly gendered imperative to care for students also within

online interfaces where pastoral care work requires new skills and approaches, but is still naturalised and exploited as a ‘gift’ to students, ‘loyalty’ to institutions and ‘loving one’s work’. Most studies of such processes are missing a growing precarious academic workforce working in outsourced services, outside the universities. What is more, since COVID-19, universities have rolled the red carpet for companies offering digital devices and services, who previously had to knock on doors to offer such degrees in public-private partnerships. But what impact are these processes having on workers?

Digital disruption or unbundling of higher education The process of unbundling higher education a.k.a. digital disruption is a specific avenue where processes of outsourcing of academic labour take place. Unbundling is the process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts and their delivery in different combinations often through public-private partnerships and the use of digital approaches. ‘Unbundled’ micro-credentials have been praised as less financially burdensome for students and as beneficial for employers. Already before the COVID-19 pandemic, profitable OPMs partnered with universities. OPMs are around 60 world players currently estimated at over 3 billion and predicted to reach 7.7 billion by 2025. OPMs get 5070% of course fee revenue and access to profitable big data from students, in return for start-up capital, risk absorption, platform, marketing and recruitment aid. A difference between OPMs and other players in the EdTech sector offering digital devices or services, is that OPMs do not offer the ‘frills’ of universities but provide what is considered the ‘core business’ of universities: curriculum design & delivery, teaching, student support & supervision. To do that, they rely partly on the labour of university hired academics, but mostly on that of academically-trained and precariously OPM-employed academics who do low-paid jobs on short contracts that include unpaid tasks. A second difference: unlike most other private education providers except for commercial publishers, OPMs use established brands of existing universities in order to sell their product. The promise of radically ‘disrupting’ the elite ‘bundle’ of residential universities does not challenge rankings and academic fame.

The (post)pandemic future? The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a process already underway. Using the brands of universities generating income from student fees, university-OPM partnerships have already opened a new page in the deprofessionalisation and fragmentation of academic labour. With content put online

and ‘facilitated’ by workers often trained to a postgraduate/post-PhD level, universityOPM partnerships use two types of unpaid or poorly paid labour: • Often (though not only) precarious university-hired academics whose workloads intensify and extensify all at once to absorb a second shift of online teaching often within the same time schedule and with little extra support or remuneration. • Precarious, deprofessionalised, and increasingly deregulated and poorly paid contract labour outsourced academics hired through OPMs: content curators, forum managers, online support officers – their job descriptions proliferate and they are invisible, fragmented and isolated. Given that teaching has become a job of ‘second-class citizens’ (casualised, women, people of colour) in academia, ‘unbundled’ teaching-only positions inside and outside academia are often the only type of employment such humans with complex lives can aspire to. With the pandemic push toward home-based child- and elderly-care and online teaching, gendered divisions have deepened. One can predict this might become an epidemic (or pandemic) development after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless it is taken into consideration by traditional academic trade unions – which so far have either stayed in blissful negligence or put a blind eye to these developments – this new ‘generation’ of precarious outsourced workers will present a new challenge to mobilising and collective bargaining in higher education. To explore some of these developments, we propose a comparative study in two contrasting countries, the UK and Chile, whose higher education systems are highly marketised. We aim to trace how core teaching functions have changed in both contexts, and in their temporality and spatiality due to the newly emerging partnerships for online higher education provision before and over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Mariya Ivancheva is a Lecturer at the Centre for Higher Education Studies, University of Liverpool, UK. Dr Aline Courtois is a Senior Lecturer in the Dept of Education, University of Bath, UK. Professor Dr Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela works at the Faculty of Education, Universidad de Tarapacá, Chile. This article was originally published in Post Pandemic University on 12 Oct 2020, and in University World News on 7 Nov 2020.

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021


Casualisation in higher ed is good for business:

This article, reprinted from University World News, looks at casual employment from the perspective of UK universities, where there are significant differences in the treatment of casual employment. For example, staff in UK univerisites still have a track to tenure through casual work.

The title of this article is intentionally provocative. Critics of neoliberal reform agendas will initially suspect yet another pamphlet preaching the inherent benefits of corporatisation and marketisation of higher education. By contrast, proponents of managerialist leadership will feel challenged about their use of academic personnel as a flexible resource.

Get over it

We take issue with both ends of the spectrum and choose a middle ground by peeling off the ideological layers from the contentious discourse on casualisation. In our view, the casualisation of academic labour is to a large extent ‘bad business’. It is a short-sighted move based on convenience but leaves them worse off in terms of business proofing for the longer term. To be clear, we are presenting a rather mainstream (for some maybe even neoliberal) argument, i.e. we are attempting to defeat the corporatists on their own turf. This should, however, not be construed as support for more fundamentalist positions that link academic freedom to far-reaching employment protections, including tenure. Casualisation comes in many shapes and forms and not all qualify as precarious employment. Short-term contracts can, for instance, be tied to time-limited project funding with no internal champion available to commit to a necessary fundraising flow that can justify making positions permanent. It is also a fitting contractual model for doctoral students, adjunct faculty with a portfolio of other jobs and junior faculty on a tenure clock.

Maximilian J Hommel XOLAS

Ulrich Hommel EBS Business School, Germany


In contrast, letting sessional staff continuously teach core modules of flagship programs, issuing zero-hour contracts or continuously lowering the bar for employment termination in situations of crisis are examples of the dark side of (the de facto or explicit) casualisation that we definitely want to take issue with.

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021

The state of play Let’s first look at the numbers. The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reports 67% of researchers and 49% of teaching-only staff being on fixed-term contracts for the academic year 2018-19. It also reports 13.4% of academic staff and 8.3% of non-academic staff being on hourly contracts. A 2016 study of the American Association of University Professors reported 70% of all faculty being employed off-track, ie, without tenure and not on tenure track, many of them on part-time contracts. Based on the 2018 survey published by the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), the situation is even more severe in Australia, with 43.8% of the university workforce in casualised employment, 20.8% on fixed-term contracts and therefore only 35.6% with permanent positions. These figures match the mandatorily published statistics for the state of Victoria, which reports that 69% of staff are on shortterm contracts (or insecure terms) with the University of Melbourne even reaching 72.9%. It is not just the absolute figures that are concerning, but also the readiness to performance-manage staff ‘out of the system’, especially in times of crisis. In September 2020, NTEU reported that 10% of the pre-COVID workforce in Australian higher education had been shed already, close to 50% of these being permanent staff. The Centre for the Study

®®® Casualisation in higher ed is good for business: Get over it of Higher Education of the University of Melbourne conservatively estimates a 25% employment reduction in casual and research-only fixed-term staff. The Washington Post reports changes of similar severity for the United States. But ‘normal’ times appear not to have been much different. Based on 2016-18 data for six Australian business schools, departures of faculty on fixed-term or permanent contracts over a three-year period ranged between 25% and 35%. Thus, individuals in supposedly secure employment can be casualised de facto.

The research-teaching benefit Let’s tackle the supposedly most powerful pro-casualisation argument first. By keeping personnel flexible, higher education institutions can engage in sourcing risky foreign tuition revenues, use surplus funds to hire top researchers and keep their teaching loads low by sending casuals into the classroom. It appears a win-win for everybody: Better research scores, more money for the university and, if things turn for the worse, costs can be cut quickly by, for instance, not rehiring sessional teaching staff. This dominant logic in the UK is a perfect example of universities’ mission having gone astray.

problem. And, on top of this, they are quite regularly forced to make compromises about the time allocated to lecture prepping (67%), exam marking (73%) or student feedback (71%). Third, the reliance on casual staff (especially in teaching) leads to an inferior education experience for students and creates disruptions in other activities, such as third-party funded research projects. If casuals behave in any way rationally, they will transition out of this role as quickly as possible, implying a high turnover of sessional staff from semester to semester as well as premature staff departures during projects. Lack of experience in dealing with specific tasks is bound to be negatively linked to the quality of teaching delivered, especially when combined with ad-hoc (less formalised) due diligence in the recruitment process. It also begs the question of what the opportunity costs of this practice are in terms of lost tuition revenues from students who drop out. In an act of self-preservation, many casuals will game the imperfect performance metrics and, if played smartly, with a negligible probability of getting caught. Teaching towards student evaluations are a well-known consequence which leads to grade inflation, weaker marking criteria de facto, giving away exam content in class or not penalising academic infractions to avoid reprisals.

First of all, by fragmenting faculty in the described way, the core ambition of researchOne has to wonder how informed teaching is this aligns with the largely thrown by ambition to foster the wayside as students’ critical interactions with ... the reliance thinking that can be research faculty on casual staff (especially found in basically are thinned out. any universityAcademia’s in teaching) leads to an level assurance of ‘esprit de corps’ inferior education experience learning system? should instead be to engage for students and creates Fourth, a low in meaningful bar for staff disruptions in other scholarship to be terminations (as, for activities... shared with society, instance, is present including students, in the Australian not to produce research higher education system) impact scores for national combined with the widespread assessments or international deployment of casual staff breeds rankings and accreditations. a culture of staff disengagement that


Second, casualisation as a risk management device is a contractually inferior outcome. The burden of managing risk should always rest with the party that is in a better position for dealing with it. Current practice, however, sees it pushed onto the weaker party that, according to a 2019 University and College Union survey, requires many casuals to work unpaid overtime (78%) and cut back on their scholarly ambitions (75%). Systemic exclusion from professional development programs reinforces the

prioritises personal marketability over less visible contributions to university development. It is a failure of institutional leadership that invites just good enough behaviour on all levels. Why should staff enter into implicit contracts to invest in institutional development if the financial return for them is likely to be negative? Our final point follows.

will ensure the under-provision of key skills needed for coping with the disruptive challenges facing higher education. Most importantly, those challenges include technology-induced unbundling combined with competitive entry by non-academic providers and stronger reliance on network partners. What will be the future role of research specialists and casuals providing commodified services in an environment where universities have to fight for customer attention in fluid, constantly changing ecosystems? A closer look at other industries, such as banking, illustrates what may be ahead. We speculate that universities will, in the future, serve as entry and exit points for a learning experience that takes places in a multi-institutional environment with many more choices for students.

Leadership fails to keep up This brings us to our concluding reflections: Why has casualisation developed such deep roots in higher education if it is wrong on so many levels? What explains the systemic hypocrisy of higher education institutions claiming a societal role for themselves (supported by positive impact scores in surveys and rankings) if their ‘machine room’ practices are speaking a very different language? In our humble opinion, the professionalisation of leadership has not kept up with the demands of higher education being positioned as a surplusseeking and risk-taking business. The rewards of adhering to established bureaucratic rituals (and focusing on slowly adjusting structure rather than shaping conduct) are, in many cases, perceived to be higher than embracing the entrepreneurial opportunities and challenges that would normally come with the role of a higher education institution executive. This misalignment at the top then seeps into organisations and distorts incentives all the way down to the bottom where the casuals work. Maximilian J Hommel works as a consultant at XOLAS, a company providing advisory services to business schools and universities. Ulrich Hommel is Professor of Finance at EBS Business School, Oestrich-Winkel, Germany and founding partner of XOLAS. This article was first published in University World News on 12 Dec 2020. Reprinted with permission. php?story=20201211110620766

Fifth, and in our view most important, staff engagement has to be managed altogether differently in the future and the current practice of personnel segmentation

Connect ® Volume 14, no. 1 ® Semester 1, March 2021


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