Different roles for older academics: good for them, good for new leaders

Australian universities have quietly assumed they are on an inexorable march to a demographic cliff as many of our senior academic staff approach the traditional age of retirement.

You can almost sense the worried frowns forming on people and culture teams across the nation at their annual planning days as they review the latest figures, which show that 29 per cent of Australia’s senior academics are over 60 and almost half are over 55.

On the one hand, if older academic staff chose to leave, we could be on the cusp of losing a third of the 15,796 full time equivalent Level D and E academic staff, requiring thousands of staff to move through promotions processes and raising questions about leadership, experience and capacity in the short term, as younger staff adjust to new roles.

On the other hand, if they don’t leave, universities face challenges on many fronts – working out how to sustain, motivate and performance manage older workers more effectively, while also finding career pathways and promotion opportunities for thousands of younger workers stuck in Level C roles because senior seats are still occupied by people who qualify for train discounts and cheap insurance with their Seniors card.

I’ve just spent a couple of nights looking into employment data, looking at what is going on in the sector, and considering a few of the key workforce issues that university leaders and people and culture representatives need to think about in 2023. The result, a report An Overview of The Australian Higher Education Workforce 2023, captures just a few of the key issues ahead, with a particular focus on the issue of ageing – an issue that has been forecast for a long time, but with little investment into achieving effective resolutions.

Internal university fears of being accused by the powerful professoriate of ageism, ongoing individual incidences of ageism and an ongoing reliance on the citations, networks and grant-pulling capabilities of older academics has stymied a lot of opportunities for constructive and creative policy development in this space – until now.

A growth in staff numbers across the sector is likely to begin this year, as a result of the confluence of new industrial laws, likely to result in conversion of more contract and casual roles into ongoing positions; international student enrolment growth, requiring more academic horsepower; and attendant revenue growth enabling the resumption of university initiatives engaging the wider world.

Furthermore, the loss of around 9,000 FTE ongoing roles in the depth of the COVID lockdowns (between 2021 and 2020) realised a range of cost savings, but also exposed capacity gaps in numerous institutions.

There are opportunities, stepping aside from allegations of ageism, to create a new class of roles to accommodate the varying capacities and motivation of older workers, freeing up senior roles while enabling older staff wanting a change to focus their time on areas of strength. This would involve reimagining the role of older academic staff and even redefining what we mean by the term ‘senior’ academic – so that they are valued and respected, but also provided with the chance to morph into jobs that focus more on their core expertise and less on roles at the front of the staff room, provides opportunities to improve the lot of older staff, reduce their exposure to the humdrum administrivia that blights the modern academic workload, and consider fewer working hours.

There may be much to be learned from Indigenous culture here – Elders are recognised for knowledge and authority, and in return are expected to serve as valued advisers. Reconceptualising the potential and even the expectation of older people to contribute is key.

At the same time, the primitive, opaque and often flawed promotion and performance management systems that older academic staff have clung on to in fear of ageism and younger rivals at some institutions will need to be dismantled.

Level A-C staff are the lifeblood of Australia’s universities, but many feel undervalued, with lower pay, burgeoning workloads, little workplace power and little prospect of promotion. While the largest age group of Level A’s are 30-34 year olds and Level B’s 35-39, the trend line for Level C stuff is much flatter, with a long tail of staff between 40 and 60 attesting to the chipboard partition between the university engineroom and its more rarefied single office space for Level D and E staff.

As the number of new jobs grow, universities are going to have to work harder to encourage and keep their Level A-C staff – vital human assets who are not only doing a huge quantity of teaching and research (and now administration, filling in for lost professional staff); but who also provide a bulwark against the ongoing possibility of a senior staff mass exodus, prompted by any number of variables.

Universities therefore cant address their issues with an ageing workforce without also focusing on those slightly younger staff waiting in the wings – at the same time as preparing to welcome a growing staff without becoming dangerously bureaucratic and bloated.

There hasn’t been a more interesting or vital time for people and culture reps to give flight to their creative solutions – a critical time for the rest of the university to focus in and collaborate to achieve constructive change.

Register today & grab your free copy of The Overview of Australian Higher Education Workforce 2023 and we will also put you on the list for our monthly newsletter.