You might have seen a couple of articles in the Higher Education Supplement of the Australian recently commenting on the newly released staff statistics for the university sector. Every year universities are required to provide details of their staff numbers to the relevant department (now the Department of Education, formerly DIISRTE, DEEWR) as at 31 March, and these are published early the following year on the Department website. This data collection is the only longitudinal data available on casual academic staff and it goes back as far as 1990. Data on casual numbers (general and academic) is collected on a full-time equivalent basis (FTE) only, not headcount, and this I think contributes to an underestimating of the real size of the casual academic workforce.
The FTE formula
One FTE is deemed to be 25 hours of tutoring in a normal teaching period, or 9 hours of lecturing. This is worked out at each university by adding up casuals’ hours of face to face teaching over the year to calculate the ‘estimated casual’ figures (which is published the following year). The data also report an ‘actual casual’, a revised version of the ‘estimated casual’ which is also FTE, but a year behind. The ‘estimated casual’ figures do not separate general and academic staff, so it is the actual casual figures which are of most use as they allow an FTE calculation of casual academic staff, by university and by gender that can be compared across years.
Confusing? Yes it is, but the key things to note are:
- Since 1990 FTE casual academic numbers (that is tutors, lecturers and demonstrators who are paid by the hour) have risen 250% compared with a 55% rise in non-casual (continuing and fixed term academic staff) academic FTE.
- One casual FTE is roughly 6-8 bodies, but this varies significantly by university and by faculty/department. The figures do not allow us to track changes in way universities utilise casuals over time.
- The figures are solely reliant on university recording and reporting. Some universities have good data collection – at others it is woeful.
In my research I have attempted a headcount calculation of casual academic staff using two different methods, first through analysis of confidentialised data from the staff superannuation fund, Unisuper and second through our large survey of casual academic staff at 19 universities in 2011 (using universities’ email details for their casual academic staff).
Just as the FTE data is far from perfect both of these estimates are imperfect too. However what these sources of data revealed was that in 2011 the size of the casual academic workforce across Australia was between 50,000- 67,000, headcount. This means that the casual academic workforce on a headcount basis is larger than the academic workforce. Of course this compares someone working 2 hours a week for a semester with someone working full time so it’s problematic, but what it does is allow for a better understanding of the size and scale of the workforce. Other research has suggested that casual academic staff undertake a majority of undergraduate teaching across the sector.
In all it shows that universities have a large and hidden workforce responsible for much of the core function of teaching and it’s time we gave more attention to this critically important workforce.
Comments and questions are welcome!