Message from the Provost: some facts about casualisation and student-staff ratios

26 March 2013

Yesterday, many of you will have received an email from the Branch President of the NTEU, Michael Thomson, disputing claims in my email of last Friday.

We welcome active debate on these matters with the unions; that is what a robust public culture should encourage. We would also like to maintain a dialogue more directly with staff, so we can make sure you hear both sides of this dispute. I would like to invite you to ask any questions about this enterprise bargaining round, about the University's proposal or about the thinking behind it. Please submit your questions to so we can keep track of them and ensure they are answered.

In response to Mr Thomson's email, and in the interests of balance, let me say that it is true that we tabled the full list of our 18 changes officially on Friday, although what the Branch President of the NTEU failed to note was that all bar two of these changes had been on the table for some time. And he is simply not right when he says that we do not want to return to existing EA conditions with regard to Review Committees - that is precisely our proposal. In order to more fully explain the detail of these 18 changes, Professor Brewer has developed an online presentation that I hope you will listen to.

Mr Thomson says the University has the resources to cover a "fair" pay rise of 7 percent. I must spell out what a pay rise of this size would actually mean. If we were to meet this demand, it would cost us $35 million more next year than it would cost us to fund the 2 percent rise we have offered. By 2016, the gap between the University proposal and the union proposal would be $156 million. We would have to enrol 5800 more full-time students to meet this salary bill than we would to fund our 2 percent proposal. Imagine the impact that would have on workload and student-staff ratios.

I know that staff at our University take pride in evidence-based argument, so let us look at some facts about casualisation and student-staff ratios.

  • The unions claim massive increases in casualisation of teaching over the last decade, with up to 40 percent of all teaching done by casuals. In fact, the percentage of casual academic staff at Sydney has declined steadily since 2001, from 24.7 percent of the academic workforce to 19.9 percent last year. Other universities may be increasing casualisation, but not Sydney.
  • Similar claims are made with respect to administrative and professional staff. The fact is that there has also been a decline, although a much smaller one, in the percentage of casual staff, from 14.9 percent of all professional and administrative staff in 2001 to 14.5 percent in 2012.
  • The unions claim student-staff ratios have increased. In fact, our student-staff ratio in 2012 was the same as it was in 2008, despite the impact of reduced government funding. Examination of the detail shows more complexity, of course: in some areas ratios have worsened in this period, but in others they are actually better. Overall, we have been resisting external funding pressures to increase these ratios and have introduced the University Economic model to try to reduce some of the internal differences in the circumstances of faculties.
  • The unions claim significant increases in class sizes. Again, that is evident in some areas but less so in others. Many of our courses and classes are characterised by very large enrolments, sometimes over 2000 students. But the fact remains that half of all the units of study taught in 2012 had less than 50 student enrolments.
    Of course in many areas students from more than one unit of study sit in the classroom. So let's look at the timetable. In 2012, 38 percent of timetabled classes had 15 or fewer students allocated to the room. This is something we are proud of. We are committed to trying to sustain small-group teaching, and our staff have done great work in sustaining a high-quality education, despite the funding pressures.

Mr Thomson cites 2009 to argue that casualisation has increased by 3 percent. What he doesn't say is that this only applies to academic staff. More importantly, he doesn't tell us that this was the only year in the last decade where the number of casuals fell below 19 percent of the academic workforce, largely because we had our best ever year in terms of international student enrolments and had the funds available to make more academic appointments. If we had been equally selective we would have shown that from 2009 there had been a very significant decrease in the casualisation of administrative and professional staff by almost 3 percent but we didn't because this year is an anomaly in the past decade. It is regrettable that he fails to reveal his selective use of the statistics.

He also claims that we have been reluctant to meet. In addition to the 15 scheduled meetings, we have offered a further six - four to both unions and two to the NTEU only when CPSU was unavailable - all of which have been rejected. We have put the schedule of meetings online so that you can see for yourself.

Of course I know that a number of you are equally sceptical of anything coming from me, suspecting that I am manipulating the evidence in the same way as the NTEU. You shouldn't have to be caught in a "they said, we said" contest. Go to the published evidence on our Planning and Information Office web site where most of the official statistics that we are required to report to Canberra reside, and weigh up the evidence yourselves.

I would urge you to look beyond the spin to the facts. Times are difficult in a resource-constrained environment and we have been working together to do more with less. These facts reveal that we have done a remarkable job in achieving just this outcome, which is why we support a pay rise, but a modest one so conditions such as the above can be sustained not worsened.

Regrettably the unions' pay proposals would undermine this good work. The irony of the enterprise bargaining discussion is that meeting the union claim would only lead to significantly more casualisation and higher student-staff ratios.

Yours sincerely

Stephen Garton