Research academics in Australian universities

Theses in a dumpster
All that work!, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Kaye Broadbent has published widely in the areas of gender and insecure work, women, work, and unions in Japan and in a comparative context. Her current research interests focus on the gender and employment insecurity of research staff in Australian and British universities, and labour resistance in Japan during the war.

Glenda Strachan has developed a body of research on contemporary and historical workplace change, especially issues that relate to equity and diversity and women’s working experiences.

Carolyn Troup specialises in evaluation and workplace change implementation. She has worked on a broad range of organisation health and applied health research studies in the public sector, not-for-profit and higher education sector in Australia and New Zealand. She is on Twitter at @CalTroup.

This data appears in more detail in Broadbent, Kaye, Carolyn Troup, and Glenda Strachan. 2013. “Research Staff in Australian Universities: Is There a Career Path?Labour & Industry: A Journal of the Social and Economic Relations of Work 23 (3): 276–95. doi:10.1080/10301763.2013.839082.

This research is drawn from Work and Careers in Australian Universities (WCAU), a survey of academics and allied staff in 19 Australian universities. We received nearly 22,000 responses. The survey was part of an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage grant (LP0991191), based at Griffith University and partnered by Universities Australia Executive Women, the National Tertiary Education Union, and Unisuper.

The project examined gender and employment equity in Australian universities. The survey didn’t specifically focus on research academics but many of the questions can be used to provide a glimpse into the broad context of research academic life.

National employment trends for academics in universities are represented in Figure 1 below. The data indicates that the number of research academics in Australian universities has increased in the decade 2001-2011. The number of research academic women has almost doubled.

Graph showing percentages of men and women within each academic role type at 2001 and 2011 for teaching and research, teaching intensive and research intensive staff
Figure 1: Percentage of academic staff in permanent positions within role type, by gender, Australian public universities 2001 and 2011 (national data)

The data for the rest of the discussion is drawn from the WCAU survey. Figure 2 shows the percentage of academics at each level by gender and type of employment contract that is comparing those on fixed-term contracts to those in permanent employment. Those on fixed-term contracts are concentrated in the lowest two levels of the academic employment scale (A and B – tutor and lecturer levels).

Academic staff in fixed term and permanent roles, by academic level (A to E)
Figure 2: Academic staff by level and gender and type of employment contract (%) (WCAU data)

Focusing specifically on research academics, Figure 3 represents the number of academics who responded in the WCAU survey that their contracts were research focused. The overwhelming majority (84%) are employed on fixed-term contracts. We don’t include those staff classified as general/professional, but whose primary task is research focused/part of a research team (as we are unable to identify them from our survey sample).

Research responses broken down by role. Research intensive is further broken down by fixed term and permanent staff.
Figure 3: Research academic sample (WCAU data)

Where are they located?

The WCAU survey revealed that 63% of research academics are employed in the Group of Eight (Go8) universities (older, traditional universities) – both those employed on fixed-term contracts and those employed permanently. Approximately 80% of research academics were concentrated in two disciplines: sciences and medical health sciences. In terms of gender composition, there were more women employed in medical health sciences than science (39% vs 19%), while science was male dominated (65% vs 37%).

Other characteristics

The research academic workforce was primarily employed full-time (75%). In terms of length of employment in the university sector, 47% of research academics had worked between 3-9 years, 28% had worked less than three years, while 18% had worked between 10-19 years. We estimate that a significant proportion of research academics had been employed on several fixed-term contracts.

In comparing research and teaching academics with research academics, Figure 4 demonstrates that, among research academics, more women were appointed to Level A positions. Slightly more men were appointed to Level B positions. This differs for teaching and research academics where women outnumber men in both Level A and B positions, only achieving parity at Level C (Senior Lecturer). Permanent research academics were generally appointed to the higher levels of D (Associate Professor) and E (Professor). One-third of research academic women and almost one half of research academic men (49%) were appointed to Level E positions.

Sixty-two per cent of research academics responded that they had made no progress through the career levels since their first appointment, indicating there is a limited career path for research academics appointed to the lowest levels.

Graph showing that the great majority (about 75%) of research intensive staff are Level A academics.
Figure 4: Level of appointment for research academics (WCAU data)

Satisfaction with their job

Given the insecurity of employment research academics face, we asked if they were satisfied with their jobs. An overwhelming 75% responded that they were satisfied. Table 1 indicates that compared with other academics (i.e. teaching and research, and teaching focused), research academics generally express high levels of job satisfaction, with women slightly more satisfied than men. One reason for high levels of satisfaction may be explained by many having chosen the research path. If we compare research academics by employment contract, it’s clear that fixed-term research academics are more dissatisfied with their jobs than permanent academics.

Table 1: I am satisfied with my job overall

  Research Academics Other Academics Total
  Fixed term Permanent Fixed term Permanent
  Women Men Women Men Women Men Women Men
  % % % % % % % % %
Agree 74 72 80 76 63 70 63 63 68
Disagree 19 19 14 18 28 19 29 28 24
Neither/Do not know 7 9 6 6 9 11 8 9 6
Number of respondents 1011 1023 142 230 329 333 1466 1735 6269

Approximately 50% of fixed-term research academics were dissatisfied with career opportunities in the sector. This is higher than for permanent research academics and other academics (either teaching and research or teaching intensive). Fixed-term research academic women are also slightly more dissatisfied with their career opportunities in the university sector compared with research academic men (48% vs 45%). When compared with fixed-term teaching and research or teaching only academics, both research academic women and men are dissatisfied, with fixed-term research academic women the most dissatisfied of all academics. The WCAU survey is unable to tell us why and this is an area that’s to be explored further.

When asked if they would like to remain in the university sector for the rest of their career, approximately half of fixed-term research academics said yes. There was a slight gender difference with 46% of women and 49% of men responding yes. This is an indication that gender equity policies in universities are reasonably good. This is slightly higher than for fixed-term teaching and research academic women where 45% didn’t want to remain in the sector. Over one-quarter (27%) of fixed-term research academics, women and men, indicated they wouldn’t like to remain in the university sector, which is much lower than for permanent research academics who wanted to remain in the sector (women 49% / men 71%). The dissatisfaction of fixed-term research academics needs further exploration and is possibly an indication that they’re dissatisfied with the insecure nature of their employment.

Impact of insecurity

Being insecure (fixed-term) affected the ability of research academics to access opportunities for leadership and internal funding. Women more than men expressed this was a problem in/for their careers. Fixed-term research academics reported more difficulty in accessing all types of support – from supervisors, guidance in performance reviews, leadership opportunities, and access to internal research funds. More female fixed-term research academics reported access difficulties.

We also need to explore the impact of insecure employment on career aspirations. The majority of research academics wanted to be at a higher level in five years, but more fixed-term research academics responded in the positive. There was a fairly even gender balance with 58% of fixed-term research academic women and men responding that they wanted to be at a higher level in 5 years.

We could hypothesise that, because the majority are concentrated in the lower levels of employment and many have been on fixed-term contracts for a number of years, they would be keen to be appointed to a higher level on contract renewal. However, career expectations were affected by employment status as 20% of fixed-term academic women and men expected that they would have to leave the sector. More fixed-term research academic women expected to be at the same level in 5 years, but more fixed-term research academic men expected to be at another university in 5 years.

Overall, we know from the WCAU survey that most research academics are satisfied with their jobs and want to remain in the university sector. This is a positive element for the retention of, and succession within, the research workforce. The high level of insecurity, however, has created a segmented workforce (fixed-term vs permanent), and the impact on the career aspirations and expectations of the two workforces are significantly different. It is this aspect of the research academic workforce that could create challenges for research and university managers and policymakers in the recruitment, retention, and ultimately the development of a future research workforce.


  1. Kaye Broadbent & Glenda Strachan have published additional analysis on this data. There paper is:
    ‘It’s difficult to forecast your longer term career milestone’: career development and insecure employment for research academics in Australian universities, by Kaye Broadbent & Glenda Strachan, in Labour & Industry, volume 26, issue 4, 21 October 2016


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