Australia’s universities place as world class research organisations and jobs are threatened by federal employment legislation due to begin in December.
The peak body for Australia’s universities, the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association (AHEIA), says there are many potential adverse outcomes arising from legislation on fixed-term employment within the higher education sector.
“The changes already are impacting decision making and posing a threat to research projects that rely on fixed-term employment,” the Executive Director of AHEIA, Craig Laughton said.
AHEIA has outlined to the federal government potential consequences and has urged the adoption of regulations it has proposed to ensure higher education research, including medical research and a highly skilled workforce don’t become victims.
“Fixed-term employment contracts have been essential to research projects. This is because of the underlying precarious funding grant model in Australia,” Mr Laughton said.
“Furthermore, difficulties associated with precarious funding have been identified in the Australian Universities Accord interim report released recently. The interim report notes that: “…the funding of higher education and its workforce structure are inextricably linked.”
“Imposing unworkable restrictions on this form of employment arrangement could have a huge impact on the viability of the nation’s research effort.”
Mr Laughton said fixed-term contracts in the higher education sector provided excellent remuneration and generous benefits, such as 17 p.c. superannuation, transferable long service leave, paid and extended parental leave, flexible work arrangements, and professional development.
People engaged on fixed-term research projects can access severance pay when funding grants are not renewed.
“It is not sustainable to move many fixed-term research staff into permanent positions. This would create significant financial liability where funding grants for those positions were not renewed,” Mr Laughton said.
“This is because permanent staff under university enterprise agreements are entitled to very generous redundancy provisions. In one example the maximum redundancy payment is up to 104 weeks.
“Without changes, numerous research projects are threatened and may be forced overseas. Then we’d lose a generation of researchers.
“We’ve alerted government to our concerns and have been waiting for several months for a response.
“As the largest research sector and one that contributes $29 billion to Australia’s export revenue we urge the government to acknowledge AHEIA’s proposals and engage in constructive dialogue.”
At present there are more than 220,000 staff employed in the higher education sector. *Also:
• in 2019–20, Australia’s universities undertook 36 per cent of Australia’s total R&D, and almost 80 per cent of public sector research;
• universities perform almost 90 per cent of discovery or basic research in Australia;
• in 2020, universities performed more than 45 per cent of all applied research in the nation compared with 38.9 per cent by businesses;
• for every one per cent increase in R&D, Australia’s productivity rises by 0.13 per cent;
• while Australia is home to 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, it produces around three per cent of the world’s research;
• more than 90 per cent of local university research is rated as world class;
• universities represent the bulk of the country’s research workforce at 81,090 FTE out of a total workforce of 180,540 FTE (45 per cent) in 2020; and
• postgraduate students comprise 57 per cent of the university R&D workforce, making them significant contributors to Australia’s research efforts.
*Source: Universities Australia