‘Invisible’ casual staff get little support on campus

University managers are concerned that students are dropping out because they do not receive enough support from overworked casual staff. Debconf5

University students are often in the care of casual staff who have not been inducted into the job, receive no support or professional development, and do not have an office, an inquiry will hear today.

Researcher Robyn May, based at Griffith University, conducted a survey of 3100 casual academic staff in 19 universities, and found that more than 66% had come by their jobs informally and started off “invisible in the system”.

Only half had access to “some form of induction”, but most received little to no professional development. “Why would the university invest in staff who may be here one week and gone the next,” Ms May will tell the nationwide Howe Inquiry into Insecure Work, which finishes today in Melbourne with a focus on the predicament of casual university academics.

“[Casual staff] know that the students are getting a rough deal being taught by staff who don’t have an office, who might rush between a number of universities to make a living, and who aren’t considered part of the team,” she said. “One casual I interviewed described feeling just like a student in that regard, not knowing what was going on until he stumbled upon information often after the event.”

Ms May said that university managers she had interviewed were aware of the problem, and worried about student attrition “and how it might be linked to the fact that much of their undergraduate teaching is performed by hourly paid staff who are simply not able to provide students with the extra support they need”.

Figures from the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations show that the estimated number of casuals employed for teaching and research increased by 7.9% from 2008 to 2009, and 6.1% from 2009 to 2010. Over the same periods, full-time and part-time teachers increased by 4.2% and 2.9%.

The President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Jeannie Rea, said that as many as 77,000 staff out of a university workforce of about 180,000 were employed on a casual or sessional basis.

“More than half of all undergraduate teaching in Australian universities is carried out by casual academic staff,” she said. “We believe this could increase even further as institutions respond to the federal government’s policy of uncapping of university places.”

“The high level of insecure employment at universities is financially difficult as well as being stressful for the workers concerned. I’ve heard many stories from talented young academics that have left the sector due to the being unable to gain secure employment. It’s a major waste of talent our economy cannot afford.”