Limits on fixed-term contracts ‘could stifle industry-funded research’

Australian university representatives warn of unintended consequences from two-year limit in new workplace relations act

December 9, 2022
A contract
Source: iStock

New limits on fixed-term contracts risk reducing opportunities for researchers rather than boosting their job security, Australian university representatives have warned.

The “Secure Jobs, Better Pay” act bans fixed-term contracts that last, or can be extended or renewed, for longer than two years. The aim is to prevent these sorts of contracts from becoming “another form of insecure work”, according to an explanatory memorandum for the bill.

The prohibition does not apply to casual positions or to fixed-term jobs funded by one-off government allocations of longer than two years, including many Australian Research Council (ARC) grants. But this exemption does not extend to research jobs bankrolled by industry or private philanthropists.

With Canberra urging universities to collaborate more closely with industry, the act – which passed parliament in early December – leaves them in a quandary.

The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA) said “one part of government” was awarding universities three-to-five-year fellowship grants, and encouraging them to seek similar support from private sources, while “another part of government” was insisting that privately funded research positions of similar durations must be ongoing jobs.

“That’s going to cause huge problems for a lot of universities,” said AHEIA president Carolyn Evans. “We would like a bit of clarity from government around this, because…it could be really quite disruptive for the sector.”

Executive director Craig Laughton said the “mismatch” posed particular problems for large universities that had pharmaceutical companies “pouring money in” to fund medical research. “And small universities who really live hand to mouth in terms of the researching elements of what they do – they’ve got to watch closely.

“You’ll do less risky research, which is the antithesis of what you want to be doing at a university, because you will be carrying significant overheads in terms of employees. Ironically it could push the sector back to using more casuals.”

Sectors across the world have struggled to deal with the problem of academic precarity, particularly because grant funding is usually time limited. Previous efforts to fix casualisation in Australia have largely failed with less than 1 per cent of tens of thousands of sessional staff at universities benefiting from legislation introduced in 2021. 

There are also concerns that research positions that universities fund themselves, typically through revenue earned from international students, may not be exempt from the new two-year time limit. Mr Laughton said it was unclear whether the exemption for “government funding” included universities, as substantially taxpayer-funded institutions, or was limited to traditional research funding mechanisms such as ARC grants.

He said the sector had 12 months to nail down such details, after the government amended its bill to postpone the fixed-term contract limitations for a year. “They delayed it…to try to get those provisions right,” he said. “As it stands, they’re a little problematic.”

The act permits longer fixed-term contracts that are provided for in “modern awards” – generic documents that set out the minimum terms and conditions of employment in each industry. But the AHEIA said that if fixed-term provisions in institutional enterprise agreements differed from those in the applicable modern award, it was unclear whether the two-year limit prevailed.

Independent senator David Pocock, whose vote was pivotal to the bill’s passage, echoed the “concerns” about fixed-term contract limitations in a Senate committee report.

“While promoting security of employment is a worthy objective, this part of the bill may have a number of adverse unintended consequences on various sectors including in professional sports and university research,” it says.

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