Insecure employment ‘inevitable when funding is insecure’

Australian universities push responsibility for casualisation onto Canberra’s funding arrangements

May 5, 2023

Australia’s representative university organisation has proposed a “shake-up” of research funding, blaming Canberra for endemic job insecurity that has infuriated the academic union.

In a prepared speech to a conference organised by the university employer association, Universities Australia (UA) chief executive Catriona Jackson will link precarity in the university workforce with uncertainty in research funding.

The speech relates how declining investment from business and the Commonwealth, with government research spending slumping below 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product, has forced universities to rely on “highly unsustainable” cash flows from international education.

This instability has infected jobs, Ms Jackson will tell the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA) conference. “Many researchers are employed on contracts, which means they don’t have secure employment,” her speech says.

“Almost 80 per cent of the research workforce is employed on fixed terms. This makes it difficult for researchers to plan their careers and their lives, along with research programmes.”

The conference coincides with a week-long campaign of rallies and strikes involving university staff in every state and territory. They are seeking inflation-level pay rises, reduced workloads, indigenous employment targets, work-from-home rights and improved leave provisions.

Job insecurity is also a major grievance. While the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and AHEIA disagree about the level of casualisation in the sector, both say it is too high.

Most universities that have successfully negotiated enterprise agreements with their staff have included “casual conversion” clauses that earmark certain numbers of continuing positions for precariously employed staff.

Ms Jackson’s speech also blames Australia’s funding squeeze for low grant success rates and a “lack of diversity” among researchers. She says research funds are monopolised by established researchers rather than newcomers, “making it hard for younger people to cut their teeth”.

Female researchers are “disproportionately affected”, with medical research projects led by women attracting just one quarter of grants.

UA wants the government to raise research spending to “at least the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] average” and commit to a funding target of 50 cents in the dollar for the indirect costs of research – up from about 22 cents now.

It also wants Canberra to boost PhD stipends, which leave current doctoral students struggling to survive on A$85 (£45) a day. “There is also the issue of pay security,” the speech adds.

“PhD candidates are considered students rather than employees. This means female candidates don’t qualify for the government’s parental leave pay, hindering their financial ability to have children. None of this is sustainable, particularly in the face of growing cost-of-living pressures.”

Although UA wants these issues addressed through the Universities Accord, which is due to report by the end of the year, it is also seeking relief in the 9 May federal budget. “We have no time to waste,” Ms Jackson’s speech says.

“We need a research funding system that works in Australia’s interest, not against it. It’s time government stopped taking this vital endeavour for granted.”

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