Are tenured academics an endangered Australian species?

The latest staffing statistics tell us one thing: the age of the tenured academic is like that of the southern hairy nosed wombat and Tasmanian devil – extremely endangered.

The National Tertiary Education Union estimates, based on federal government data, that of the 222,000 people worked in Australian univesities last year, 100,000 (45%) were casuals, 50,000 (23%) were on limited-term contracts and 71,000 (32%) had what the Education Department refers to as tenurial jobs. In other words, only one in three staff enjoyed a secure ongoing job. On a full-time equivalent (FTE) basis, 2018 was the first year in which just under half (49.1%) university positions were tenurial.

However, if we dig a little deeper we can see a number of other interesting changes to the university workforce landscape. An analysis of more detailed university workforce data between 2005-16 allows us to discern a number of interesting developments in relation to the feminisation, use of insecure forms of employment and increasing use of specialist academic roles at Australian universities.

Over that time period, employment numbers, including casuals at rose from 93,995 FTE to 126,698 FTE: an increase of 32,703 positions or 35%. Disaggregating this data allows one to examine the composition of these additional positions and see where the growth in employment has been occurring.

General and professional

Of the additional 32,703 additional FTE approximately 56% (18,237) were classified as what the NTEU considers to be general and professional (G&P) roles, but which the departmental data refers to as ‘other’ or ‘non-academic’ roles. G&P accounted for 52% of all roles in 2005, and the most recent data shows that this has increased to just over 55% in 2018. Of the additional G&P positions almost three out four (73%) were for females.

However, less than half (46%) of these additional positions were secure ongoing (tenurial), with almost four out of ten (38.5%) limited term and the remainder casual. As a consequence the university G&P workforce has become even more feminised (rising from about 61% in 2005 to about 64% in 2016) and less secure with the proportion of G&P positions classified as tenurial falling from 69% of all FTE to 61%.

Academic staff

There were 14,496 additional academic roles created between 2005 and 2016 which accounted for approximately 44% of all FTEs over that period. Of these new academic roles just over 9,000 or 62% were females. Only one in four (25%) were tenurial positions. From that we can see that three in four (75%) of these roles were insecure: casual positions accounted for 37% and limited term positions for 38%.

Helpfully, academic staffing data is broken down into teaching-only, research-only and teaching and research roles, which allows us to dig a little more deeply into changing pattern of academic employment. The following table shows the share of the total increase in academic positions (14,469 FTE) accounted for by different types of academic roles by gender.

Teaching and research academics

While tenurial female teaching and research (T&R) FTE accounted for about one in ten (9.6%) of all new roles, tenurial male T&R roles actually fell by 3.8% which represents 544 FTE positions. In aggregate, tenured T&R roles – once considered the bedrock of Australian universities – only accounted for just over one in twenty (6.1%) of all new positions created between 2005-16.

As a consequence, the proportion of tenured T&R positions that were female increased from about 37% in 2005 to over 42% in 2016. The growth in casual and limited term T&R positions was also very modest and accounted for less than one in ten (9.4%) of all new academic positions.

Specialist academic roles

Table One: Employment by academic specialists and teaching and research positions 

The largest increase in academic employment occurred in specialist academic roles. The largest increases in academic employment were in teaching-only (TO) casual positions for both females (20.4% of total academic positions) and males (13.4%), followed by research-only (RO) positions (12.3% males and 10.4% females). In total specialist roles (TO and RO) account for almost nine out ten 84.7% of all new positions.

Indeed the growth in the use of specialist academic roles over the last decade or so has been so prominent that, as we can see in the chart below, they now account for a greater proportion of the total academic workforce, than do T&R academics. In 2005 T&R academic positions accounted for over one in four (26.9%) of all university positions and specialist academic roles (TO + RO) accounted for one in five (20.8%).

By 2016 these proportions had been flipped with specialist academic positions accounting for 25.1% and T&R positions 21.7%. This dramatic switch to the use of specialist academic roles not only has important implications for nature of academic work, but it also has very important implications for employment security.

University staffing statistics show that in 2016 about eight out of ten (77%) of TO academic positions are casual and a similar proportion (78%) of RO academic are on limited term contracts. This raises the question as how much the increase in the use of specialist academic roles is being driven by the desire to achieve employment flexibility and cost savings.

The changing landscape

While the changes to the university employment landscape have no doubt partly been driven by changes to government policies such as the introduction of Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) – an assessment of research quality similar to the UK’s REF – and the uncapping of government subsidised undergraduate places, it still raises questions about the nature of future of university employment.

As Australian universities move toward the use of more specialist academic roles which predominantly use insecure forms of employment, it is worth asking whether tenured teaching and research academics are becoming an endangered species on our university campuses. This raises further questions about what consequences this will have not only for the future academic work itself, but also the character of universities more widely including potential impacts on research, students’ learning experiences and the role that universities play in their communities.

One response to “Are tenured academics an endangered Australian species?

  1. Paul’s article, like all NTEU( academic union) commentaries on this subject completely fails to acknowledge the three realities facing management in universities. The first is how to manage significant fluctuations in both domestic and international student numbers from year to year-staff numbers need to be adjusted to the level of student enrolments ( a reality which the union persistently will not face up to in any serious way). Secondly, the union adamently opposes teaching-only continuing appointments, thus forcing managenent into making such appointments via sessional/casual appointments. There is an important debate to have had about the merits of teaching-only appointments in universities but the NTEU does not want to have that debate -it wants to close it down because it sees the academic role as a teaching/research combination. Thirdly, enterprise bargaining agreement provisions relating to redundancy and unsatisactory performance are so complex and restrictive that it is easier for management to deal with casual/sessional appointments rather than continuing appointments. Don’t know how much of this applies to the UK but it is a reality in Australian HE ( however much some VCs might want to deny/ignore it). Howzat for a comment?

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