Universities should report real staff numbers not accounting abstractions

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The staff profiles provided by some universities can confuse and information on redundancies may not specify the actual number of people who have lost their employment. This is because of the financial crisis caused by heavy reliance on fees from on-shore international student fees

 The recent New South Wales Legislative Council committee inquiry into the state’s universities came up with a simple but effective disclosure regime for staffing profiles (1).

“That the NSW Government mandate that universities provide a more detailed report of their staffing profiles, including a requirement that data be provided on permanent, fixed-term and casual staff levels in terms of both head-counts and full-time equivalents, modelled on the Victorian reporting requirements.”

The Australian Higher Education System (AHES) is a public institutional system, and public sector universities are registered as charities for legal, organisational form. Despite government imperatives to operate in a competitive educational marketplace, universities are public institutions. There is no market as the federal government controls both the fees charged to local students, the amount a student fee pays in HECS and the total number of permitted local student enrolments.

Currently, Australian public sector universities in the Department of Education, Skills and Employment university staff data and university annual reports disclose a “full-time equivalent staff” number (FTES). But how this is calculated in the university setting is not discussed and challenging to comprehend.

Thus, we must look to the university reporting to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), and the individual universities Annual Information Statement 2019 to determine the number of employees employed.

Our database shows that as of December 31 2019, there were nearly 100,000 casual employees. Also, we found that one university with a ratio of 68 per cent casualisation.

Our database highlights that as of 31 December 2019, in rounded numbers.

staffing profiles, including levels in head-counts
 permanent, 93,000
fixed term 25, 000
casual staff 98, 000
total bodies 216, 000

and full-time equivalents staff 122,000

Therefore, using the full-time equivalents staff calculation, 94,000 employed bodies disappear from the university’s accounts. Typically, a full time academic would have 12 hours teaching a week. However, casuals may have four hours and the typical 35 per week, making 8.75 employees equal to 1 full-time academic.

This is important, as, in the last decades, public universities increased levels of insecure employment through casual or contract-based university employment. In evidence to the NSW Legislative Council inquiry, in September, Damien Cahill from the National Tertiary Education Union argued universities have:

“… been exposed to significant market-based risks, and one of the chief tools they have used to address this risk is to rely increasingly on insecure forms of work. Casual and fixed-term employees now comprise about two-thirds of all university workers. The nature of their employment rights means that they can be easily let go and, indeed, they were the first to lose their employment as universities responded to the onset of the pandemic. As the crisis has continued and deepened, ongoing staff have now had their jobs targeted for redundancy. At present universities in New South Wales have announced around 1,300 redundancies, with further mass redundancies of an unspecified number announced for Macquarie, Newcastle, UTS and Sydney University. Staff have been the shock absorbers of the COVID pandemic within the university sector.”

Of course, since September 2020 there has been a lot more announcements and non-announcement about redundancies and the loss of employment in the New South Wales university sector. While vulnerability to job losses will vary from discipline to discipline, in some areas the proportion of women in insecure employment is exceptionally high – for example, in mathematics, 64 per cent of all women in academic positions are in casual jobs. (II)

An accounting practise is for organisations to convert casual staff numbers into FTES positions – so much easier when you want bodies to disappear. In Australia university, casual and insecure workers were the first in the university sector to go with the pandemic. However, there are reports that thousands of professional and academic staff positions have already been eliminated (III). With an estimated 100,000 casuals as of December 2019, part-time, administrative and research jobs in universities, mass terminations would irrevocably damage Australia’s capacity to teach, research and contribute to the community.

The DESE data on university staff and university annual reports disclose these as “full-time equivalent staff number”. Not the actual number of employees’ bodies and how FTES is calculated are not discussed (IV).

Our case study will use disclosures in the annual report, charities commission reports, parliamentary evidence, and other sources using two universities. The figures are rounded to allow this.

University of New South Wales

In the 2019 annual report, UNSW discloses a total staff of 7,200 which they say is 6,700 full-time equivalent this is only broken up into academic staff and professional staff.

In the charities commission reports, we constructed, the following Table 1 indicating the number of bodies by employment. In this case, the actual number of casual employers is 13,000, and the full-time equivalent is 6800.

Table 1. Number of bodies by employment, 2019

 

Full-time employees6100
Part-time employees1200
Casual Employees actual13000
Full-time equivalent staff6800
  

 

In the NSW Parliamentary committee, the UNSW VC disclosed some 750 FTE positions are occupied by 6,000 individual casual staff members[v]. This was in a discussion about cost savings and the number of employees.

UNSW has announced 500 job cuts planned, including 265 forced redundancies, accounting around 7.5 per cent of its staff. The university has also announced it will cut 25 per cent of management and consolidate its eight faculties into six (Derwin, 2020). Interestingly, the ratio and numbers of employees are based on FTE. If the above evidence is correct, then up to 4,000 casuals lost their employment by the end of 2020.

University of Sydney

The University of Sydney latest 2019 annual report only discloses the headcount of continuing and fixed-term staff (academics + general staff), therefore, making invisible the number of casuals employed. A table from that report shows the numbers for the 2019 year .

Table 2. Combined totals of academic and general staff position 2019 by appointment term

 

 Year  2019
Continuing4000
Fixed term4000
Total8200

 

In the charities commission reports, we constructed the following Table 3 indicating the number of bodies by employment category. It is strange that report on the same date, 31 December 2019 has different EFTS.

However, when we extract data from the charities commission report, we note that it appears that in this case study, the casuals employed are not actual bodies but equivalent full-time when it should be real people.

Table 3. Number of bodies by employment, 2019

 

Full time employees6600
Part time employees1800
Casual Employees actual1800@
Full-time equivalent staff8700
  

 @use EFTS rather than actual head count

 In sworn Parliamentary evidence the VC of  the University of Sydney stated in August that “I last looked at these numbers about a week ago. The Victorian numbers’ problem is that they are not equivalent full-time numbers; they are warm body numbers. If you teach the piccolo for an hour a week, you get counted as a person. We have about 7,000 casual staff, and they constitute about  500 full-time equivalents [FTES], which makes for us 500 FTES out of about 6,000 FTES, of which about 3,000 is academic, and 3,000 is professional. It is a real issue. …. For those people, it is a very real issue indeed, but it is not the issue that it looks from the Victorian statistics, because the Victorian statistics are done on a person and not an hourly basis.”

The VC also stated there were 9,500 casual staff engaged and that the casual staffing budget had already cut by 15 per cent and was going to be cut by $90m which is six months’ salary expense for casuals. But how can we calculate the number of bodies made redundant?

While the University of Sydney has been reluctant to release actual numbers, its revenue shortfall runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars. As a result, it let go of a significant number of casual staff but is yet to finalise redundancy numbers expected to be high.

There are other ways to count staff. The Victorian government requires Victorian universities to disclose classes of employment and actual numbers of bodies. Regulations in other states do not provide for this. There are no general accounting guidelines to account for categories of employees. Most universities convert them into FTES by some undisclosed calculative practices.

However, these two universities latest 2019 annual reports, only disclose the headcount of continuing and fixed-term staff (academics + general staff), therefore, making invisible the number of casual bodies employed.

In so-called cost-cutting, we observe cutting in operations and working conditions, but little about the number of actual people insecurely employed and the loss of their wages and jobs.

In terms of solutions, we could see institution and student contracts that state the minimum proportion of their contact hours taught by permanent staff. TEQSA could then audit this. Even without setting a minimum number, if this disclosure was required, it might prove to be a relevant factor in students deciding where to study, rather than the obsession with university rankings which has minimal impact on the actual student experience.

The other type of lost employee conditions at present include reducing permanent headcount and requiring staff to apply for “new positions”; abolishing annual leave loading,   staff taking annual leave for the three days at Christmas the university now gifts; freezing pay-rises already agreed to;  pay cuts; mandatory leave; freezing research fund or completely clawing them back; no international travel; no sabbatical leave; “reconsider” academic promotion rounds.

Also, operating change is increasing workloads and performance management systems. Then there is the one that will cost jobs, consideration of changes in academic organisational units, programs, resource allocations and a reduction and rebalancing of both academic and professional staff workforce.

We would be keen to see if some standard measure of EFTS and headcount for staff comes out of this process and what it is. In the past, VCs have come up with own “conversions” of casual numbers to FTE, and some of them have been pretty absurd.

University vice chancellors should be setting a model of behaviour for the rest of the community. The Banking Royal Commission pointed out many unethical practices it hoped would be cured by universities teaching more ethics. Having casuals who teach the same courses year after year means that they are continuing yet they don’t receive standard benefits and are the first to be laid off. If they work say five hours they are bundled up with other casuals in a 35-day work week, seven continuing casuals are reported as one full-time equivalent (using a 35-hr week). This is unethical behaviour from publicly funded universities entrusted with teaching ethics to the business and broader community.

Professor Tom Smith and Distinguished Professor James Guthrie, Macquarie Business School

[i] NSW Parliament (2021), Future development of the NSW tertiary education sector / Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education [Sydney, N.S.W.]: the Committee, 202, xviii, 140 pages; 30 cm. (Report / Portfolio Committee No. 3 – Education; No. 41) “January 2021.”

(II) http://www.nteu.org.au/ecu/article/Women-are-bearing-the-brunt-of-COVID-pain-in-higher-ed-%28Agenda-28%29-22335

(III) Smith, T. and Guthrie, J. (2020), ‘Ignored and unemployed: Helping at-risk casual staff’, Campus Morning Mail, 18 May 2020, available at: https://campusmorningmail.com.au/news/ignored-and-unemployed-helping-at-risk-casual-staff/

(IV) Smith and Guthrie (2020) argued (https://campusmorningmail.com.au/news/first-identify-all-casual-staff-then-find-ways-to-keep-them-working/ CMM May 17).

(V) https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/inquiries/Pages/inquiry-details.aspx?pk=2597#tab-hearingsandtranscripts hearing, several VCs were questioned about casuals.

 

Period27 Jan 2021

Media contributions

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Media contributions

  • TitleUniversities should report real staff numbers not accounting abstractions
    Degree of recognitionNational
    Media name/outletCampus Morning Mail
    Media typeWeb
    CountryAustralia
    Date27/01/21
    DescriptionThe staff profiles provided by some universities can confuse and information on redundancies may not specify the actual number of people who have lost their employment. This is because of the financial crisis caused by heavy reliance on fees from on-shore international student fees
    Producer/AuthorProfessor Tom Smith & Professor James Guthrie
    URLhttps://campusmorningmail.com.au/news/universities-should-report-real-staff-numbers-not-accounting-abstractions/
    PersonsTom Smith