Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Casual University Work: Choice, Risk, Inequity and the Case for Regulation

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Casual University Work: Choice, Risk, Inequity and the Case for Regulation

Article excerpt


The extent of Australian university casualisation is under-recognised outside the sector. In conservative full-time equivalent terms, (2) Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) figures suggest that 20 per cent of academics and 13 per cent of general staff are employed on hourly casual contracts. In the head-count terms used in other industries, an estimated 40 per cent of academic staff are now casual employees (McAlpine, cited in Buckell 2003:19). This is a higher casualisation rate than the Australian workforce average of between 23 per cent and 27 per cent, depending on definition (Campbell and Burgess 2001; Wooden and Warren 2003; Pocock et al. 2004).

Competing approaches to casual employment derive from the relative values placed on the concepts of flexibility, insecurity and inequity. Flexibility arguments, on the labour demand side, identify casualisation with market efficiency (Murtough and Waite 2000). University casualisation, however, will be shown to be a creature of political regulation rather than market freedom. On the labour supply side, flexibility discourses define casual employment as an outcome of individual lifestyle choice, over-zealously policed by those who misperceive it as '... a type of employment of last resort that would not be voluntarily chosen by any rational individual' (Wooden and Warren 2003: 2). Casual university employment, however, will be shown to be a minority choice.

Discourses of insecurity, by contrast, refer to the presence or absence of protections from a range of individual and social risks associated with casual employment (Campbell and Burgess 2001; Bohle et al. 2001). Arguments for industrial regulation arise from a view of the insecurity of casual work as itself a regulatory construct--an '... officially sanctioned gap in protection' and a '... startling example of social exclusion at the very heart of the labour regulation system' (Campbell and Burgess 2001: 171, 176-178). The concept of exclusion brings us to discourses of inequity, which lend support to legal, industrial and political efforts to moderate both the 'less favourable' treatment of individuals on non-continuing contracts, and the socio-economic effects of casualisation, such as fragmentation or polarisation (Junor 1999; Mylett 2003; Watson et al. 2003). Insecurity and inequity arguments thus overlap (Standing 1997). Recent claims that the risks of precarious employment have been overstated are based on a uni-dimensional identification of security and equity with employment duration. Whilst the average duration of casual jobs in Australia is around three years (Wooden 1998), this does not mean that such jobs are secure, well-paid or linked to benefits or career paths. Whilst long-term employment has grown over the past decade (Doogan 2003), so has precarious employment--a development consistent with the polarisation thesis.

In assessing the relevance of the flexibility, insecurity and inequity paradigms to university casualisation, we begin with a contextual sketch of changes in funding regimes and governance, and an outline of industrial regulations defining, constraining and enabling the use of casual and alternative employment modes in universities. After a brief outline of the research methodology, survey evidence is then used to explore aspects of choice and insecurity, based on typologies of casual academic and general staff, and to examine issues of inequity, particularly in pay. The conclusion recommends a multi-faceted approach to regulation.

The Policy Context: Regulating for Labour Cost Flexibility

In Australian universities between 1994 and 2000, rapid enrolment growth was accompanied by a loss of 718 full-time equivalent (FTE) continuing staff, counterbalanced by FTE increases of 1,609 (29 per cent) in casual academic staff levels and 1,749 (33 per cent) in casual general staff levels. Although non-casual staff numbers recovered between 2000 and 2002, their growth was insufficient to prevent a continued increase in FTE casual density, which rose between 1994 and 2002 from 15. …

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