Unpaid overtime, job insecurity, mass casualisation and a greater workload, are all pushing university academics and staff to breaking point, an investigation by Central News can reveal.

Despite a record $5.3 billion surplus in 2021, international student enrolments surging, and a steady return of face-to-face campus activities, contracted university staff numbers continue to decline with post-pandemic hybridisation of teaching adding more work to the load.

Today the National Tertiary Education Union called for a federal parliamentary inquiry into university wage theft, which it said was likely to exceed $382 million, making it the worst performing sector in the country.

Dr David Drayton, a communications lecturer at University of Technology Sydney, said remuneration for additions to the teaching workload were inadequate.

“For every hour of lecture, I was paid for two hours of preparation,” he said. “I don’t know any of my colleagues who can write a lecture in two hours and deliver it in the third hour.

“I did enjoy going back to live lectures this year. I think they are, in a weird way, less stressful. There’s researching, then there’s writing for the lecture, which takes as long as it takes, and then we don’t get paid for the delivery of the lecture. The two hours we do get paid for this preparation isn’t anywhere near enough.

“It’s more and more labour that’s not being paid for.”

Some of the learning opportunities where attendance does not reflect the need for on-campus activities have been switched to online UTS said, adding that students had supported such an approach.

“On-campus learning is supported by a range of appropriate and meaningful digital tools which make learning more accessible for students who have other commitments, live a long way from campus or who want to revise or catch up on in-person learning opportunities they have missed. This is to support student’s desire for flexibility and the changing nature of course delivery,” a UTS spokesperson said.

Graph: Georgia Palgan / CN. Shows comparative data of the populations of higher education staff, casual, part time, full time and total over 6 years.

Dr Sarah Attfield, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) branch president at UTS, said: “I was a casual (staff member) for 10 years before I got my continuing role. I know exactly what it feels like. You get paid your hourly rate, but it’s never enough to cover the hours you’re working.

“It’s called a rolled-up rate. Whatever the hourly rate is, it incorporates the hour of delivery and then the two hours of preparation, so it’s really a three-hour hourly rate. That looks good on paper, but it takes more than two hours to write a lecture. If you’re very experienced and quick, you might be able to write one (in) 10 hours, but that would be the minimum.”

However, these institution-wide issues are not a problem of the past. New data released in February 2024 suggests this has had a continuing downward trend since 2020 and worsening every year, according to a national survey conducted by the University of South Australia from 2020 to 2023.

The NTEU estimated that less than one in three university workers has secure employment.

“Casual employment is not just an economic problem, it has an enormous impact on the mental health of workers who live with constant insecurity,” the union said in a statement.

Data released today by the NTEU shows underpayments to university staff amount to more than $203 million in recent years, with universities’ annual reports revealing $168 million has been set aside to repay workers for suspected wage theft incidents.

Dr Irving added: “More casualisation means people are teaching way too much. Now that I’m a full-time ongoing employee with a teaching intensive contract, I have six tutorials in total this semester… it’s nothing.

“What I was used to, as a casual, is maybe two-and-a-bit times that workload. I think this shows the institutional problem of too much casualisation.”

The government’s Australian Universities Accord final report, issued in February, found that 50-80 per cent of undergraduate teachers in Australia are casual or seasonal staff.

I would like to know what I’m doing in three months’ time, and I would like to know that I can pay rent in three months’ time.

Dr Drayton said he has been teaching casually since 2015 and had only once secured a short-term contract at the university.

“I don’t prefer to be casual,” he said. “I would like to know what I’m doing in three months’ time, and I would like to know that I can pay rent in three months’ time.”

In 2020 NSW universities closed due to COVID-19 lockdowns and suffered extensive pandemic-induced financial losses, with travel restrictions limiting international student enrolments, declining between 2020 and 2022 by 238,837.

When teaching moved online in reaction to pandemic lockdowns in 2020, 30 Australian universities received $1.8 billion (4.8 per cent) less in income than in 2019. And government funding for higher education has continued to decline post-pandemic. Combined with wage remediation provisions for academic staff, nine universities in NSW recorded a $400 million loss in their annual reports for 2022.

Pandemic-induced financial deficits forced many institutions to restructure and cut costs, leading to the loss of 27,000 academic and teaching staff in the first year of the pandemic, with contracted staff numbers continuing to decline since.Combined with the Morrison government excluding higher education from accessing the JobKeeper wage subsidy in 2020, the impacts are still prevalent four years later. University staff claim to suffer from greater job insecurity, mass casualisation, increased overtime, and burnout.

The statewide hybridisation of university teaching and resources also presents unique challenges for staff that they have never faced before.

UTS communication lecturer Dr Siobhan Irving said the time and research spent generating hybrid learning content, such as lectures, tutorials, and workshops, was much more than many students realised.

“I much prefer live lectures because talking to my laptop is soul-crushing,” she said. “Zoom lectures are better, but the prerecorded stuff is awful.

“The best kind of teaching is relational. When you’re blasting out content through online videos, there is no contact, and the students won’t know you from a bar of soap, so what you have to say is not necessarily all that important. 


Students relax on Alumni Green at UTS. Photo: Georgia Palgan / CN


“There’s no expectation, and you’re just a number on a roll sheet.”

Dr Drayton, a casual teaching staff member since 2015 and subject coordinator, agreed.

“One of the nice things about coming back is the cohort for students this subject feels so much tighter. There’s a camaraderie, and social groups are actually forming,” he said.

A national study on the changes in university workforces by the University of Melbourne found while there was an increase in the number of senior academic staff between 1989 and 2020, there was a simultaneous reduction in the proportion of these staff who had ongoing positions.

Part of the reason for this is international student application acceptances have declined at their lowest rate since 2005, with 80 per cent of student visa applications passing approval since December of 2023, according to the Department of Home Affairs.

The data also showed 418,168 higher education enrolments in 2020, with a 5.1 per cent decline from 2019, the first fall in these numbers since 2012.

The Coalition and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton pledged in their 2024 budget reply speech in Parliament in May that, if elected, they will significantly reduce Australia’s overseas migration program from 185,000 to 145,000 in their first elected year, which they claim will help alleviate the housing crisis. 

This reduction would slash the number of overseas student enrolments significantly. As of the January–March 2024 period, there were 687,840 international students in Australia, an increase from the same period last year by 21 per cent, according to the Department of Education. The Coalition’s federal budget aims to cut down the growth in overseas student enrolments to as low as a possible 5 per cent.

These proposed changes include limiting overseas student enrolment to between 10,000 and 15,000 a year.  To give some perspective on how drastic a reduction this number is, the total number of international students who enrolled at the University of Sydney in 2022 was 30,348, according to their annual report.

Universities are not the only sector to be impacted, this reduction would also affect the economy, as international students contributed $29 billion in export income in 2023, according to data from the Department of Education.


Sourced from the Department of Education. Graph: Georgia Palgan

This cut in permanent overseas migration will significantly impact university enrolments and lead to a massive loss in potential revenue, affecting universities’ ability to fund the employment of ongoing staff and potentially leading to more cost-cutting measures to fill the financial gaps.

Domestic student enrolments in NSW are also declining, according to the Department of Higher Education. Statistics show the total student enrolment population fell from its peak at 358,448 in 2021 to 343,653 in 2022.

The NTEU found that $2.4 billion was cut from the federal government budget, and spending on university education in 2024 will be at its lowest in decades, according to its pre-budget submission in the 2022-2023 financial year.

The union also found public funding for universities will be $634 million behind due to decreased funding paired with increasing inflation.


Dr Sarah Attfield.

The corporatisation of universities and over-reliance on international student enrolments may be key contributing factors in this teaching and learning crisis, as in the continuation of cost-cutting measures seen during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Funding is the biggest factor in the rate of casualisation because there has not been money to put on full-time continuing staff or even part-time continuing staff to teach. That’s why so many tutors are casual academics,” Dr Attfield said.

“The other reason is bigger – It’s the way universities run as businesses rather than what they previously were, as a public good to provide education. That’s still part of it, but they run like businesses. When an organisation is run like a business, then it becomes about money and keeping costs down. It’s cheaper to hire casual academics than it is to hire full-time employees.”

UTS had no comment to make about the specific allegation that a lack of funding was contributing to the number of casual or short-term contracted staff at the university. 

Instead, a spokesperson for the University told Central News: “Decisions around the employment of casual staff at UTS are based on the workforce planning strategies of the faculty or unit.

“Over the last 12-15 years, the level of casual employment at UTS has remained steady at around 20 per cent. The recent UTS enterprise agreement provides sector-leading conversion rights for contract staff, and 110 ongoing new jobs for casual academics.”

Main image of a lecture at UTS by Georgia Palgan.