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Is employment at the University of Sydney becoming more insecure, centralised, and top heavy?

It is not uncommon to see three statements about changing employment at the University of Sydney:

  1. Staff are increasingly employed in casual or insecure positions

  2. Professional staff positions are increasingly centralised

  3. Management is becoming top heavy

I wanted to get a sense of what the data says about these potential trends. As the Department of Education posts data it collects from universities on employment, and universities disclose similar data through their annual reports, I thought I'd take a look at the numbers for the University of Sydney.

1. Is employment increasingly insecure?

This ends up depending a lot on how one spins the statistics. Using the Department of Education data we can look at employment by full-time, and fractional full-time, and estimated casual status. Employment has grown substantially over the past 10 years, with full-time positions up 51%, fractional full-time up 82%, and casual positions up 79%. If we take full-time positions as the benchmark for secure employment then this looks like a large increase in insecure work. However, as full-time employment is the largest share, full time employment over this period has only fallen from 74% to 71% of total FTE employment, while casual FTE positions have increased from 15.7% to 17.7%.

Continuing versus fixed-term positions are another important aspect of employment security. Using the University's Annual Reports we can see that there were larger changes from 2000 to circa 2010/2013, but eyeballing the graph below doesn't show much of a trend over the last 10 years in the ratio of continuing to fixed term contracts.

So, are these big or important changes in casual versus full-time, and continuing versus fixed term positions? I don't know, but they are significantly smaller long-term shifts than I expected.

2. Are professional staff positions becoming increasingly centralised?

The numbers don't easily give this one away, though the word around the School of Economics is that positions are being centralised over time which makes it more time consuming to get simple tasks done. One way to look at this is employment by Organisational Units, where Academic Units are units formed "to undertake as their primary objective teaching only, research only or teaching‑and‑research functions... such as 'schools' and 'departments'." It's not clear how exactly these are defined, but these categories appear to include both academic and professional staff.

Focusing on the Academic Organisational Units, their share of FTE employment rose from 69.3% in 2000 to 74.4% in 2009, and has since fallen to 63.6% as of 2021. At first glance these shifts didn't look particularly large to me. I expect there to be moderately large changes over time in the composition of students, degrees and research fields across the University and these will change the composition of professional and academic staff, and presumably of Academic units as well. However, a 10 percentage point shift over 10 years of employment out of Academic Units—shifts which likely come predominantly from professional staff who are a small-ish share of total School staff—looks like quite a large change. In 2010 there was also apparently a large shift in classification from Academic Support to General (I don't know what those are.) Since 2011, the share of General staff has increased from 21% to 27% of total FTE employment.

3. Is management becoming increasingly top heavy?

One aspect of this question is whether there is a shift from teaching and research positions (including professional staff who directly work with teaching and research) towards other employment categories. The answer to that appears to be largely 'no', as Research and Teaching FTE has stayed fairly steady since 2000. Positions labelled under Research and/or Teaching (which includes "staff who support teaching staff" fell from 48% of total University employment in 2000 to 45% as of 2021. A pretty much negligible change in my view.

There are however notable declines in Teaching & Research positions towards Teaching only and Research only positions. It's not clear if this is a polarisation of academic &/or professional roles within fields, changes in the composition of what fields students study (with some fields like the hard sciences requiring more research-only staff), a decline in academics being offered 40-40-20 roles, etc.

However, this doesn't tell us if there is an increase in middle or upper management who are classified as having teaching and/or research roles. For example, the Vice-Chancellor and other management roles appear to be classified as Academic roles (!!) even if the people in those roles have never taught or done research. Perhaps we might rule out an increase in management roles if the composition of roles by position title was unchanged, as it's reasonable to assume that increases middle and upper management roles come with increases in seniority & pay scale. First up is the Department of Education data on Professional Staff and Academic roles.

While Full/Associate Professor positions are clearly rising, this isn't particularly informative so I went back to the University of Sydney Annual Reports and pulled out employment within Academic and Professional roles broken down by seniority. Here's the breakdown for Academic Continuing and Academic Fixed Term positions.

A rise in the share of academics holding senior roles is apparent. For example, over 2000-2020, Continuing Full Professor positions rose from 14.3% to 24.9% of continuing academic positions. That's a big change. Multiple things could explain this: lagged increases in promotions resulting from a hiring boom in the 1980's and 1990s, 'seniority inflation' à la grade inflation, or possibly moves by academics into a growing variety of management roles. Surprisingly to me, there are quite a few Full Professors on Fixed Term contracts.

Here's a similar and even stronger pattern amongst professional staff. HEO level 1 is the lowest pay category, HEO level 10 is the Boss of Bosses level. Over 2000-2020, Continuing Level E positions rose from 2.5% to 12.5% of professional staff positions.

So, what to make of the questions? I'm going to score them as follows.

  1. Staff are increasingly employed in casual or insecure positions. Yes, but the change isn't particularly large. The share employed in casual contracts have increased from 15.7% to 17.7% of Sydney Uni's FTE. The share of employment in fixed term contracts is largely unchanged over the past 10 years.

  2. Professional staff positions are increasingly centralised. Likely yes. Over the last 10 years, Employment in Academic Units has declined from 71% to 64% of total employment, while General positions have increased from 21% to 27%.

  3. Management is becoming top heavy. It's not clear. Employment in Academic Organisational Units is declining, but overall Teaching and Research roles, and Academic roles, are not. On the other hand, there's a large increase in the 'seniority' of positions which could be simple title and pay inflation, promotions resulting from past hiring booms, or increases in management roles.

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