How serious is the task of rebuilding the Australian research and academic career?

Earlier this week I published a review of a new book by Richard Hil called “Whackademia”. The book makes a pointed critique of the Australian Higher Education system for an excessively casualised workforce. A couple of months ago Jen Tsen Kwok, a PhD student at the University of Queensland and a Policy and Research Officer at the National Education Tertiary Union (NTEU) joined us in a live #phdchat on Twitter to talk about just this topic.

I asked Jen if he would like to put some of the data he talked about in a post as a lot of people expressed interest in the figures. This post is twice as long as usual, but I thought it was important to give sufficient space to sketch out the issues – knowledge is power after all! I want to thank Jen for taking the time to write this for us.

There are a number of projects and reports in the last three years that demonstrate the growing dissatisfaction of new academics and researchers and their tenuous career paths in Australia. I will mention some of them at the end of this post. But to really set the scene, I want to draw upon an unpublished report that should illustrate some baseline concerns around how to grow research and academic careers in Australia.

While the NTEU got a decent run in the media that followed the ACTU’s Independent Inquiry into Insecure Work recently, based on the coverage, you could infer that the NTEU was only concerned with casual and sessional academics.  In contrast, if you look at our submission you will see that it focuses on two major kinds of insecure employment, casual academics/teachers and contract researchers (the latter ranges from lab assistants to post-doc fellows).  We used the graphic below to demonstrate that if you are in a teaching-only or research-only position, you are much more likely to be employed on an insecure basis.

Work Contract by Type of Work. Source: Higher Education Statistics Collection

Based upon Fixed Term Equivalent (FTE) rather than headcount, we extrapolated Departmental data (formerly DEEWR, now DIISRTE) to show that around 86.5% of teaching-only academics are casuals and 80.5% of research-only academics are on limited fixed-term contracts. The red and brown landing strips across the top two bars reveal the extent of this problem.  Compare this to the extent of secure work in teaching and research and professional (other) employment positions.

A graphic illustration of pre-career and early career turnover

For some years, the QUT HR Department has run a Benchmarking Program that accesses employment data for university staff (gathered by universities themselves) across the country. In their 2010 Report, you can find the following Figures in relation to job interest and voluntary/involuntary turnover. This first one illustrates the extent of applicant interest in new positions. Unsurprisingly they are concentrated in Academic A and HEW 1-5 positions.

Index of Applicant Interest (Number of applicants/Number of vacancies) Source. QUT’s Universities HR Benchmarking Program 2010, pg.59

The next one looks at staff turnover, which you can see again is concentrated disproportionately in Academic A with over 90% of Academic As leaving the employment of the university, but this is still high in Academic B (over 45%). Notably, academic turnover is higher than turnover in any other area of the Australian university, be it Faculty, General/Professional or Senior Staff. In another Figure, the Report even identifies that ‘involuntary’ staff turnover is highest in Academic A, and to a lesser extent the Senior Management category.

Total Turnover (Total separations/University employees). Source. QUT’s Universities HR Benchmarking Program 2010, pg.45

This last one looks at separations from university employment based on the expiration of contracts, again disproportionately concentrated at Academic A, but higher in Academic A and B than anywhere else on the aca hierarchy. The Report claims that a high result may indicate ‘either large numbers of short-term projects or the loss of skills that may have otherwise been used in the university’.

Fixed Term Contract Expiration (Separations by Contract Expiry /University employees). Source: QUT’s Universities HR Benchmarking Program 2010, pg.53

Clearly, the problem for the next generation of researchers and academics is not just during the transition from research student into employment, i.e. it is not just an issue about whether research students are being properly trained. Even while completing or after finishing research degrees, potential researchers and academics are applying for jobs, working, and then steadily leaving university employment.

The figures illustrate that Academic As in Australian universities unequivocally represent what Guy Standing has dubbed the ‘precariat’.

Who in the sector is willing to call this for what it is – a churning through of some of the best and brightest potential academics and researchers? In the last part of this post, I want to illustrate where the policy environment since the Bradley Review in 2008 has taken us, in relation to academic and research careers and the crucial task of workforce planning.

Academic and research careers since Bradley

By now it should be fairly evident that the career structure for new academics and researchers at Australian universities is woefully inadequate – at a systemic level. Keen postgraduates often have to hunt and chase down any kind of insecure employment opportunity that will keep the rent and the credit debt paid down, while they continue to pursue their dreams of an elusive university career.

A good many of you out there might see this state of affairs as partially of your own making – that your colleagues and class-mates who have gone into non-university or non-aca jobs just didn’t have the right stuff, or the gumption to leverage themselves into academic work. Others may accept that there is something structural about it, but assume it is more about the changing and increasingly precarious nature of work, the marginality of your research, or about global and irrevocable shifts in the value of knowledge production. But this situation is being driven in large part by the current government’s performance based funding regime.  To put a different spin on Henry Ford’s famous words, you could say that you can have a researcher in any configuration that you like, as long as they are research-focused or teaching-focused.

I want to emphasise that there are national and institutional dynamics at play as well. This current state of affairs may have explanations tied to changes in the Australian labour force, and the higher education industry around the world, but it is overwhelmingly clear that the barriers in career pathways and proper workforce planning represent a threat to Australia’s knowledge economy future, and thus there are good incentives for Australian institutions and government to analyse and address them. Certainly, the former Department of Research and Innovation’s Report on the Research Workforce Strategy, (released in April 2011) highlighted that major problems in career structure exist. But the answers provided by the Strategy left something to be desired. The Report is far more focused at building non-university, industry-based careers.

Media interest is growing in the wake of the ACTU Inquiry hearings. Insecure work got covered pretty comprehensively by the usual suspects such as Campus Review, The Australian, The Conversation, The Age and Financial Review. But there were some notable contributions in the wider media, such as The Brisbane Times and The Canberra Times and the latest one by The Age.

There is some important research and engagement around these issues right now. The Academy of Science has started an Australian Early-Mid Career Researchers Forum that recently contributed an excellent submission to the McKeon Strategic Review of Health and Medical Research. You have the Learned Academies (ACOLA) completing research due to be published in June and commissioned by the Department (DIISR) and some interesting early work on postgraduate training and pathways being done by the CRCs.

My view is that the sector is still waiting for these issues to be addressed through a more comprehensive higher education workforce agenda. In spite of the extent of risk vested in this issue, I fear it may be a long time coming. What do you think?

(I’d like to thank Paul Kniest for suggestions on this piece. I’d also like to acknowledge that there are lots of NTEU activists and union staff doing important work around insecure employment. For some of the NTEU’s campaigns and activity check out Unicasuals at: http://www.unicasual.org.au/)

Some Further Readings:

Bexley, E., James R., and Arkoudis S. (2011) The Australian academic profession in transition: Addressing the challenge of reconceptualising academic work and regenerating the academic workforce. CSHE, Melbourne.

Brown, T., Goodman, J. and Yasukawa, K. (2010) “Academic Casualization in Australia: Class Divisions in the University.” JIR, 52, 169-82.

Coates, H., Dobson, I., Edwards, D., Friedman, T., Goedegebuure, L., and Meek, L. (2009) The attractiveness of the academic profession:  A comparative analysis. ACER, Melbourne.

Coates, H. And Goedegebuure, L. (2010) The Real Academic Revolution: Why we need to reconceptualise Australia’s future academic workforce, and eight possible strategies for how to go about this. LH Martin Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Management, Melbourne.

Dobson, I. (2010) “Uneven development:  The disjointed growth of university staffing since Dawkins.” People and Place. 18(1), 31-38.

Edwards D., Bexley E. and Richardson S. (2010) Regenerating the Academic Workforce: The careers, intentions and motivations of higher degree research students in Australia. Centre for the Study of Higher Education (CSHE) and Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER): Melbourne.

Gottschalk, L., and McEachern, S. (2010) “The frustrated career: casual employment in higher education.” Australian Universities’ Review. 52(1), 37-51.

Hugo, G. (2005) ‘Academia’s Own Demographic Time-bomb,’ Australian Universities Review, vol.48, Issue 1, 2005.

Hugo, G., and Morriss, A. (2010) Investigating the Ageing Academic Workforce: Stocktake. University of Adelaide, Adelaide.

Junor, A. (2004) “Casual University Work:  Choice, Risk, Inequity and the Case for Regulation.” The Economic and Labour Relations Review, 14(2), 276-304. Retrieved from:

Marginson, S. (2000) “Rethinking academic work in the global era.” Journal of Higher Education Policy, 22(1), 1-12.

May, R. (2011) “Casualisation; here to stay. The modern university and its divided workforce.” Paper presented at AIRAANZ.

Percy, A., Scoufis, M., Parry, S., Goody, A., Hicks, M., Macdonald, I., Martinez, K., Szorenyi-Reischl, N., Ryan, Y., Wills, S., and Sheridan, L. (2008). The RED Report. ALTC, Sydney. Retrieved from:

Petersen, E.  (2006) “Australian early career researchers negotiating the ‘culture change’ of higher education.” Paper presented to the TASA Conference 2006, University of Western Australia & Murdoch University.

Petersen, E. (2011) “Staying or going? Australian early career researchers’ narratives of academic work, exit options and coping strategies.” Australian Universities Review (AUR), vol. 53, no. 2, 2011, pp.33-42

On behalf of the NTEU, Jen is currently managing a research project that looks at ERA and the use of research performance measures. Please get in touch if you live in Victoria and are interested in participating in a workshop.

11 thoughts on “How serious is the task of rebuilding the Australian research and academic career?

  1. Isn’t this what the Howard government intended? to individuate and disempower employees, thereby shifting the balance of power towards employers. In which case things are progressing splendidly but we still need to work on those layabouts with secure tenure.

  2. There’s no easy answer, but significant change has to occur.

    I believe there is a huge disincentive for aspiring academics to ‘stay the course’ and battle on through constant uncertainty when there are many jobs outside the university sector where the skills harnessed through completing a PhD are desired.

    Either way, the other battle that needs to be acknowledged is that some portion of students will always need to carve out a career outside of academia – by choice or otherwise – as there are not enough academic jobs available anyway.

    Speaking from experience, these ‘defecting’ PhD students/graduates need greater assistance with being alerted to these ‘alternate’ opportunities and being nurtured through the process of having to market themselves for a different work environment. Otherwise, the university system is simply setting up large amounts of post-graduate students for a plethora of undesireable employment sitautions – insecure work, unfulfilling work, low incomes, fractured career pathways or even unemployment (to name a few).

  3. As someone looking to enter this field in the not-too-distant future, this is at once frightening and informative. Thank you for this piece. Hopefully it will open the eyes of a few of those who ought to know better.

  4. I suspect that too many PhD students are treated with contempt, as mere cash cows. The university gets $80,000 for every PhD completion but the students aren’t told this as they are exploited in doing tutes and teaching. The truth of the matter is that too many schools and faculties are ruled by cliques and the jobs go to mates and family members.

      • On a related note, the academics in my department conveniently did not disclose their motives (i.e. funding upon completion) for rushing me to finish my thesis after the three-year mark, even though I was far from ready to do so. I knew that I had four years FTE to complete and stood my ground. In the end, I handed my thesis in on time and on my terms. The flipside of this was that – after being a tutor and guest lecturer for several years – I was suddenly no longer considered for further work opportunities in the department, voluntary or otherwise.

      • The end result is the creation of a very well educated ‘precariat’ class. Can the tertiary institutions continue to operate on the current cash-driven, nepotistic and exploitative manner without a backlash by the ‘precariat’ class they have created. This new, so-called ‘dangerous class’ has spawned world event such as the arab spring and the occupy movements. Now these are extreme events, but the cliques and power-hungry exclusionist exploiters currently exercising power in the universities must surely expect to come under extreme scrutiny from the precariats they have created.

        What can be more challenging to the current status quo than people with up-to-date knowledge and nothing to lose. Perhaps it is time for the universities to realise that they must change, or be changed.

  5. I am a career artist. I have always had to work for money to support that career. Stepping from that position into academia (currently doing a DCA & still working part-time) – just seems like more of the same.

  6. Having entered academia and completed a PhD via a career/creative angle, I am discovering belatedly the nature of research and its potential. This places me in the category mentioned by a previous commentator who defines themselves as creator primarily. Curiously enough, research work at the campus where I work is still treated in a cavalier fashion and nurtures some less structural approaches to research as the article indicates. In seeking positions where research is valued and upholds stringent rules results in a clash with the ‘precariat’ class. Rather than embracing the early career academic, this tends to enforce a rift which is does not support good practices within exhaustive research.

  7. Pingback: How serious is the task of rebuilding the Australian research and academic career? | Keynote Speakers at The PLE Conference | Scoop.it

  8. Pingback: ACU Research Net » Blog Archive » How serious is the task of rebuilding the Australian research and academic career?

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