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Counting the casuals

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.

Headcount calculations

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!


About Robyn

My PhD research investigates the casualization of academic work in Australia. The research brings together a long-standing interest in industrial relations and insecure work, the experience of working in the university sector as a researcher and also for the NTEU.


10 thoughts on “Counting the casuals

  1. Thanx for this Robyn
    I think some of the casual academics may be research only, employed as research assistants, altho some universities classify research assistants as general staff.

    How should the Commonwealth’s staff data collection be improved to count casuals better? The department started a review of the staff data collection in 2012 but I haven’t seen any outcome.

    Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (2012) Higher education staff data collection review: issues paper, retrieved 18 June 2013 from

    Click to access IssuesPaperStaffDataCollection.pdf

    Posted by Gavin Moodie | March 5, 2014, 7:37 am
    • Hi Gavin, the data collection is problematic that’s true, and this reflects the large scale of this workforce and the very devolved nature of their employment – typically it’s a course coordinator responsible for hiring a casual teacher and this is often at the last moment. As a result university central HR can have very little understanding of the true picture.
      I think headcount is one useful way of understanding the scale of the workforce but as my research shows this is not without problems too, the other way would be to somehow measure teaching hours or proportions of teaching at a school or faculty level performed by casual staff. This might at least serve as an alert to senior administrators where reliance on casual teaching staff is too high, or inform students about who the teaching staff are.
      I wonder if the department simply concluded it was too hard?

      Posted by Robyn | March 10, 2014, 9:19 pm
    • I’m having a think about what all this has to do with university reputation, as I’ve been watching news coverage about the fact that Australian universities have slipped a bit in the Times Higher Ed reputation rankings.

      Rankings mesmerise higher education, and the Reputation Rankings are particularly odd, as they’re supposed to be a scan of an institution’s entire operations determined by the views of 10,000 leading academics worldwide. Then sector leaders have to front up to the media to ask if this will affect student attraction, particularly international student attraction.

      What has this got to do with casualisation? In the US, adjunct advocates are arguing that universities should have to list in a more publicly accessible way the percentage of casualisation in their institutions, so that students know what they’re getting into. It’s a persuasive argument up to a point, but it’s also been pointed out that this would hit with disproportionate force the already underfunded Community College system, which is very substantially staff by short-term contract appointments.

      So at the moment this is where we are: significant bureaucratic activity goes into counting casuals, but not necessarily in a way that enables this information to be shared, or to mean what anyone thinks it means.

      Posted by Kate | March 6, 2014, 2:03 pm
  2. I wonder about the unintended consequences — doing courses as piecework, we’ve dodged the bullet on hours related practices that I’ve read about in Australia and the UK — onerous in different ways. Although not the same kind of counting, the ACA effect on hours, losing them and how they are counted comes to mind. I worry about more fallout and unwelcome changes from trying to putting non-count work into clock hours.

    There’s been acrimony over which of two flawed approaches is the least worst. I expect more of that.

    Posted by VanessaVaile | March 6, 2014, 3:55 pm
    • I think we get stuck in the same least-worst bargain with ourselves here in Australia. Because our sessional teachers are paid by a calculation that is hourly at its base, we have a strong focus on clock hours that are then themselves defined as entirely elastic because, you know, asynchronous. What Robyn’s work shows is that this mythical hour then also factors up into how we count humans. So it’s the critical measure, and also exceptionally broken.

      Posted by Kate | March 7, 2014, 4:49 pm
  3. I would be very interested to know the percentage of casualisation of first-year teaching. It seems to me that the way institutions economise on first year teaching, particularly in the support and professional development of the casual teachers who do so much of it, isn’t typically factored in to analysis of attrition data.

    Posted by Kate | March 12, 2014, 9:43 am


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