The experience so far

Since 1999, there has been a rapid rise in both casual teaching and contract research in the university sector. Within constraints imposed by funding arrangements between universities and the Australian government, successive rounds of enterprise bargaining have seen NTEU branches and university managements negotiate a range of approaches to casualisation:  limiting casual hours, raising the cost of casual employment, creating caps on casualisation rates, and proposing new entry-level positions.

The union’s objective in the most recent completed round of enterprise bargaining was to reduce casualisation across the sector by twenty percent. This was to be achieved through the creation of a new ‘Scholarly Teaching Fellow’ (STF) employment category, whereby existing casual staff could be engaged on continuing teaching-focused contracts, with the right ot apply apply for promotion into a research-and-teaching role.

From January this year a group of researchers from UTS, Griffith, UNSW and Canberra University have been investigating the STF initiative. We are funded by the Office for Teaching and Learning for a two year project aiming to develop a sector-wide consensus on the development of the STF roles. Two main agendas have emerged – insecurity and quality.

Casual teachers are contracted to specified hours semester-by-semester, and hence cannot be accurately categorised as ‘casual’ employees. Nor are they fixed-term, as in practice most work for several years as on-going employees but without contract security.. Substituting casual teaching roles with STFs aims to go some way to overcoming this mis-recognition of the on-going nature of insecure academic teaching work. In practice, though, it appears so far that the new positions do not necessarily reduce aggregate casualisation (as we are in an expanding sector), begging the question of complementary measures.

The STF category was  also designed to speak to quality issues, by offering casual teaching staff the opportunity for greater integration into the scholarly life of the university Academic casuals deliver the bulk of face-to-face teaching in the sector, with estimates varying from fifty to seventy per cent of contact hours, depending on the assumed FTE teaching load for casuals and continuing staff.

Significantly, the Department of Education and Training assumes that casual FTE for tutors to be 25 hours face-to-face hours in a notional 35-hour week. This is inconsistent with EA provisions that pay tutors for additional ‘associated non-contact duties’ for every hour taught, and hence potentially substantially underestimates total casual FTE in the sector. The STF category, by reducing  the marginalisation experienced by casual staff and enhancing their professional development, can be seen as a quality enhancement measure.

From January this year, for the first time, universities must meet new Commonwealth ‘Threshold Standards’ for quality. Universities must demonstrate ‘sustained scholarship that informs teaching and learning in all fields’, and that their ‘academic staff are active in scholarship that informs their teaching…’. Casual academic teachers are paid only to teach, not to engage in scholarship. TEQSA has already stated that ‘unusually high reliance on casual staff poses risks for the quality of the student experience’, signaling it intends to produce a ‘threshold for the ratio of ongoing staff to casual staff… for the purpose of risk assessment’.

The STF roles can help universities demonstrate that the staff they employ to teach are also employed to engage in scholarship. Without this it is difficult to see how they will gain a positive assessment from the new ‘Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, TEQSA, which is to start its work this year. STF positions can deliver the scholarship needed in teaching, offer new career pathways for aspiring academics, and renew the workforce profile, especially important as so many continuing staff retire from the sector.

Reflecting these dynamics, in the last bargaining round some universities actively embraced the STF initiative. In all, about two-thirds of universities agreed to create STF-like roles, leading to 854 positions sector-wide. Several universities resisted the idea, while others took a ‘watch and see’ approach, leaving the sector well-short of the union target. Even so, the new positions now offer an important foundation to build-on. With casualisation in the sector continuing to grow, the STF roles offer the potential for a full reassessment of the insecurity-quality nexus in Australian university teaching.

The OLT project will critically assess the STF initiative and make recommendations on how they may develop. The aim is to investigate how best to meet required standards on scholarship, job security and quality in university teaching, while addressing university and sector priorities. We are gathering perspectives from appointed STFs, from casual and continuing academics, and from university managers and  various other stakeholders.