June.10.2019

Our university workforce has become a fragmented, casualised ‘gig economy’. The problems we face

By Paul Richardson and Amanda Heffernan

The quality and integrity of higher education in Australia is dependent on the quality of the academics who staff our universities. The supply pipeline of the academic workforce needs careful planning if it is to continue to be effectively renewed by fully rounded academics who are engaged in research and can contribute to sustaining the quality of Australian higher education.

Unfortunately, the higher education sector response to this challenge has been reactive and haphazard. We believe the problems in the sector are wide ranging and can be profoundly destructive to the future of all Australians unless we co-operatively address them and get government and policy action to change what is happening.

Problems facing the future of academic work

Growth demands

For more than a decade demographers and researchers have drawn attention to the impending need to renew the academic workforce in Australia. The Group of Eight (Go8) coalition of Australian universities estimated  that by 2030 an additional 26,600 full-time teaching staff would be needed to meet growth demands, on top of the 16,400 to replace retirements. There is little evidence of policies or support from governments to address this problem.

Changes to the nature of our work in an increasingly competitive environment

Substantial changes in the nature and context of academic work have emerged in the slipstream of commodified higher education. There is now mass participation by students in higher education, with diverse needs, interests and abilities and they are engaged in multiple modes of course delivery.  Academics today need to be agile in learning new technologies and delivery platforms, while they work in loosely co-ordinated teams often with out-of-area teaching allocations.

At the same time, universities have become intensely competitive, with global league tables promoting a hierarchy of institutions, and, in an effort to support high quality teaching and research, increased competition for declining resources. University administrations have sought to reduce the risks of continuing academic staff positions by resorting to sessional, short-term contracts and teaching-only positions. 

Casualised and fragmented workforce under high levels of stress

During the last two decades the conceptualisation, organisation, and nature of academic work has been disrupted, re-designed and transformed, resulting in an increasingly stratified, segmented, and fragmented workforce. A number of major studies have established the Australian academic workforce is experiencing excessive workload demands, intrusive managerialism and bureaucratic reporting requirements, widespread work dissatisfaction, work-related stress and burnout, at higher levels in Australia than elsewhere.

It is also highly casualised, and reliant on sessional academic staff at the lowest appointment levels to undertake face-to-face and online teaching and marking at the undergraduate level.  Concurrently, the on-going academic workforce is disproportionately skewed toward the older end of the age distribution. Impending retirement among the “baby boomer” generation will intensify the gap between on-going senior academic appointments and those occupying insecure, precariously funded positions founded on “soft” money from research grants and tenders.

Struggles of working in the ‘gig economy’

Short-term policy responses to meet staffing demands over the last decade or more have left a climate of career uncertainty and insecurity, lessening the attractiveness of the academic career. In meeting their on-going operational and educational demands in an unpredictable and volatile funding environment created by successive governments, universities have generated a new class of highly flexible and agile academic workers employed on insecure short-term, casual contracts.

They are subject to somewhat arbitrary rules of hiring and firing, income insecurity, and are distinguishable by their job and employment insecurity, lack of negotiating power about working conditions, and lack of career prospects and planning.

These are “the precariat” who find themselves in the “gig” economy. A significant proportion of these people have completed their PhD and then find there are few opportunities for ongoing employment. They piece together teaching and marking contracts at one or more universities without necessarily building the foundations of a career.

The growth of teaching-only positions undermining our future workforce

Early career academics (defined as 5 years post PhD) constitute the future workforce of the academy; yet, many are employed on sessional teaching contracts, concentrated in the lowest appointment levels and teaching-only positions. The percentage of “teaching only” staff rose by 360%, and specialised research roles by 96% in the period from 2001-2014. Casual staff, estimated between 40-60%, experience greater job insecurity, lowered access to support structures, juggle multiple demands and piecemeal contracts, suffer occupational, financial and personal stress, all of which stunt the development of expertise, undermine persistence, and fracture academic career motivations and ambitions.

Workload and burnout

Pressures have intensified with frequent reviews and restructures, standardisation and external regulation, performance measures (of teaching, research, impact, and engagement), unmanageable workloads, and the abandonment of tenure in some universities. Research has suggested that almost 40% of Australian academics aged under 30 were not committed to an academic career, or were planning to pursue other careers within 5-10 years, and 13-18% had immediate plans for departure. In the intervening period the prospects of a career in academia have not got better.

It seems inevitable that universities will not be able to meet the key performance indicators set by government and that academic staff will continue to experience job burnout at high rates.

Struggling with how to help

We need to know more about how early career academics cope with the competing demands of the job and what personal and work-related resources help to sustain healthy and committed academics. Conversely, we need to understand what job-related demands undermine the personal career motivations and goals, reduce work commitment and result in poor personal health and well-being outcomes. These are not trivial questions.

Massive growth of non academic staff in universities and related tensions

Alongside casual academic staff, new types of professional staff appointments have grown exponentially and found secure positions within universities as student advisers, HR managers, teaching and learning advisers, technical staff to manage digital technologies, academic advisers or facilitators to administer teaching programs in “flexible” modes, including technology mediated on-line teacher-less classrooms, and most recently, the emergence of practice professionals who teach but are not expected to contribute to the research endeavour.

There are irrevocable tensions that will continue to build in the university higher education workforce, between academic and professional staff who are appointed to ongoing positions with a career path and prospects, versus the short-term, contracted, sessional academic appointments who are not offered a career path, creating a sense of existential precariousness with few future prospects.

Funding uncertainty

Funding uncertainty and poor long-term planning for higher education more generally and, for universities in particular, is undermining the capacity and contribution of a skilled and committed academic workforce, making hollow the promise of Australia’s future economic productivity, innovation, growth and social stability.

Without due care and attention to the systematic renewal of the academic workforce, we believe Australia’s enviable reputation for high quality university-level education cannot be sustained.

Paul Richardson is Professor of Education at Monash University. Paul’s research interests focus on the career choice motivations of beginning teachers and the career paths, health and wellbeing of mid-career teachers. His interest in the career choice motivations, goals, health and wellbeing of academics, especially early career academics, is a development from his earlier empirical work on teachers and observations made during his time as Associate Dean Research for the Faculty of Education at Monash University.Paul is on Twitter @academiccentral

Dr Amanda Heffernan is a lecturer in Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Amanda’s key research interests include educational leadership, social justice, and policy enactment. Amanda also has research interests in the lives and experiences of academics, including researching into the changing nature of academic work. She can be found on Twitter @chalkhands

Paul Richardson (paul.richardson@monash.edu) and Amanda Heffernan (amanda.heffernan@monash.edu)  are beginning a pilot study examining the career motivations and coping strategies among Early Career Academics (within 5 years of PhD) working in Australian Universities. If you would be willing to contribute your experiences to this study, we would be pleased to hear from you.

3 thoughts on “Our university workforce has become a fragmented, casualised ‘gig economy’. The problems we face

  1. Emeritus Professor Colin POWER says:

    Our universities are certainly facing a quality crisis for the reasons you have set out. The roots of the problem stem from the dominance of the no-conservative .market driven economic policies that Salberg describes as the Global Educational Reform Movement, the GERM that has become a pandemic. `As my review (Professional Educator, vol 2/3, 2017) of Adamson, Astrand and Darling-Hammond’s comparative studies of nations adopting privatisation vs public investment models in education policy shows adopting market based-privatisation policies leads to greater inequality and lower quality in education. More and more students in Australian universities are getting a raw deal in that universities cannot afford to provide quality teachers,undergraduate and graduate program mes, ,All but students from wealthy families are struggling financially, as fees and debt levels escalate, and secure full-time jobs for graduates dwindle in the “gig economy’.” The combination of inequality and injustice,, the failure to ensure that academic staff and students have a future brings with it a heavy price – both in terms of economic development and social stability.

  2. Marie says:

    Indeed, Colin: lack of any orientation to a future beyond the current financial year seems to be a hallmark of university governance. Intergenerational injustice – for staff and students – requires institutional re-orientation to key issues of the present times and towards how universities might work with communities towards more sustainable and just futures,

  3. Marie Brennan says:

    Thanks, Paul and Amanda, for providing more grist to the necessary arguments on staffing, workload and other conditions needing to be addressed in current higher education. Key issues that i hope will get taken up in your pilot study include relations among the different categories of staff (Early, mid and late career, casual, short term contract and the teaching-only/research-only appointments, for example). The division among diverse groups militates against collegiality and academic community needed for understanding and reinventing academic work. Poor governance shows up in the lack of control over academics’ own work , while Councils and Vice Chancellors seem to be using the fiscal crisis not to lobby government on the importance of investing in the sector but rather as an excuse to control staff through restructuring and speed policy.

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