Unis offered as few as 1 in 100 casuals permanent status in 2021. Why aren’t conversion rules working for these staff?


Twenty years’ experience of casual conversion clauses in Australian universities’ employment agreements shows these have not reduced the number of casual staff they employ. No one should be surprised at how few offers of conversion to permanent employment have been made following changes to the National Employment Standards (NES) in March this year. Universities have reportedly offered fewer than 1 in 100 casual staff permanent status since then.

NES provisions require offers of continuing employment to staff members who meet several conditions. They must:

  • have been employed for the past 12 months
  • have worked a regular pattern of hours for six months
  • continue that pattern as a full-time or part-time employee. Grounds for non-conversion include the likelihood of a significant change to work requirements.

Academic conversion provisions include threshold and work pattern requirements similar to those in the NES. Some include other criteria such as:

  • being selected through an open (international) merit-based recruitment process
  • achieving specific performance standards
  • demonstrating potential for an academic career.

In part, this reflects a desire to protect the academic tenure system and the status of academic titles. Recruitment for continuing (tenured) teaching and research staff is based on open, merit-based competition. These academic staff serve a probationary period of three to five years.

Casual conversion could open “backdoor” access to a continuing academic role.

Why are conversion rates so low?

Some might see the low rates of casual conversion as reflecting a managerial desire to retain a lower-cost teaching workforce, underpinned by a drive to increase research output of continuing and fixed-term staff. However, it is likely few conversions occurred because:

  • threshold requirements could not be met as casual engagement for teaching is trimester/semester-based (13 or 16 weeks)
  • future teaching requirements are unpredictable, given recent decline in international students and changing student interests
  • there are underlying concerns about the impacts on the quality and capacity of the teaching and research workforce.

A non-conversion decision could be challenged in the Fair Work Commission. A successful challenge would pose a problem if universities wish to maintain academic recruitment standards and provisions.

How many staff are we talking about?

At the time of writing, no Higher Education Statistics data for 2020 casual staff are available. The most recent are for pre-pandemic 2019. Furthermore, headcount data are not published.

Thus, a true understanding of the number of academic casuals depends on knowing the ratio of full-time equivalent (FTE) staff to actual headcounts.

We used a conservative ratio of 1:3 to calculate the headcounts in the chart below.

However, it is likely the ratio is 1:7 based on data provided to the Senate Select Committee on Job Security. Using these ratios, between 48,000 and 110,000 people worked as casual academic staff in Australian universities in 2019.

In 2020, their numbers decreased significantly due to the COVID pandemic. One report suggests 10,000 casual jobs were lost by late 2020. More than half are likely to have been academic staff.

Casual academics are not a homogenous group. They can be broadly categorised as:

  • industry experts – professionals employed elsewhere who teach or supervise students in their discipline/area
  • faculty freelancers – work in multiple institutions, sometimes as consultants
  • returning academic staff – retired staff coming back on a casual basis
  • treadmill academics – qualified with research doctorates, aspiring to an academic appointment
  • apprentice academics – usually higher-degree candidates

In a NSW parliamentary inquiry in September 2020, the then University of Sydney vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, emphasised the diversity of the academic casual workforce. Based on his evidence, 30% of his university’s approximately 3,500 academic casual employees might be categorised as faculty freelancers and treadmill academics.

These staff are the ones most likely to be disadvantaged by current employment arrangements. Nationally, we conservatively estimate about 20% of all casual academic staff fall into these two categories.

How can these problems be solved?

Put bluntly, arrangements for casual academic employment are messy. Universities struggle to fit modern teaching requirements into rigid 40-year-old industrial instruments. These were framed at a time when casuals were a small percentage of the workforce.

Casuals now form 31% of the university teaching workforce in full-time equivalent terms. As individuals, they outnumber full-time and part-time teaching staff.

The diversity of tasks they perform suggests a “one size fits all approach” is not appropriate.

Conversion processes are not the solution. We suggest universities and the union work together to review national and international practice. This would involve:

  • a census of casual academic staff to determine how many there are, who they are and what they do
  • a review of the work they do to determine appropriate pay and contemporary forms of engagement for academic work
  • changes to the Higher Education Industry – Academic Staff – Award to enable fixed-term employment for teaching
  • simplifying arrangements for annualised hours contracts
  • establishing guidelines or thresholds to be met for a staff member to work in a fixed term or continuing position that better reflect the pattern of teaching over the trimester/semester teaching year.

Such an approach requires vision, leadership and institutional and peer recognition of the valuable contribution of casual academic staff.

Author Bios:Elizabeth Baré is an Honorary Fellow, LH Martin Institute, Janet Beard is also an Honorary Senior Fellow, LH Martin Institute and Teresa Tjia is an Honorary Senior Fellow, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education all at The University of Melbourne