The hypocrisy of our universities in this COVID-19 pandemic
The story around the treatment of casual and short-term staff at universities in Australia may never have come to light if COVID-19 had not emerged in the community. Universities in Australia have suffered severely with the loss of student numbers from overseas. This has impacted severely on the revenue of the universities and has impacted more severely on casual and part-time staff at these universities.
What has been a hidden hypocrisy for many years, however, is the way in which universities have treated their part-time and casual staff. The overall numbers of casual staff have been revealed as 68.74 % of staff employed as casuals or on short-term contracts. This is following up to eight years of study post schooling for many of these casual workers.
The unions have described this as the industry’s ‘dirty secret’. Victoria is the only state where the law requires universities to report casual employment data, but it has not altered the manner in which the universities continue to employ on the cheapest possible basis.
The figures are startling. As an example, 5000 staff at two Melbourne institutions have no more work. This figure is reflected in data from the other states. The University of Melbourne which has reserves of $4.43 billion employs 72.8% of staff on casual or short-term contracts. Monash University employs a similar number of casuals but has a much smaller reserve, just over $1 billion.
Importantly, without financial security it becomes difficult for these casuals to take holidays, get mortgages, plan a family, buy a car, but as National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Dr. Alison Barnes states ‘This chronic insecurity leads to stress and problems of emotional well-being. If our universities are supposed to hold a critical mirror up to our society then the hypocrisy around disguising and lacking transparency around those figures of casual employment and job losses are a disgrace to the institutions they represent’.
For the past decade universities have been forced to look elsewhere than the government for revenue.
Without more support from the government we will no longer be able to call ourselves ‘the lucky country’. As a consequence of this casualisation of the workforce Australia is losing its best and brightest to overseas universities, or they find permanent employment in the private business world where they are valued for their skills and years of study and research.
This will be Australia’s and the universities’ loss for many years to come.
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