MICHAEL Beacom loves working as a university tutor and lecturer but he hates the uncertainty that comes with it. He is among thousands of casual academics who are unemployed each summer.
For 16 years, Mr Beacom has taught business management and tourism at La Trobe University on a casual basis (apart from five years when he had fixed-term contracts). He has often resorted to Centrelink support to get through summer when the work dried up.
Mr Beacom's 16-year-old daughter has longed to take a trip to the Gold Coast but it's a luxury he would struggle to afford. ''The amount of money available from Centrelink barely covers the rent that I pay,'' he said.
Mr Beacom, who lives in Bendigo and wants to work full-time, said La Trobe had been supportive in many respects. It helped him to complete his master's degree and sent him to conferences overseas.
But he said far too many academics in Australian universities were employed casually with no guarantee of work the following semester. Despite the unreliable nature of their working life, casual teachers are critical to higher education. They are believed to carry out more than 50 per cent of undergraduate teaching at Australian universities.
La Trobe University spokesman Mark Pearce said the university was negotiating casual employment with the National Tertiary Education Union.
He said hiring casual workers had limitations for individuals and employers but it also provided flexibility. ''It's a question of balance,'' he said.
NTEU policy co-ordinator Paul Kniest estimated that casual workers account for at least 40 per cent of all university employees in Australia.
He said universities risked turning away aspiring academics who were struggling to live on meagre incomes.
Annabelle Leve teaches education at two universities in Melbourne. She also claims Centrelink benefits during summer.
Ms Leve has worked as a casual academic for the past 10 years while supporting a 17-year-old son and a 3½-year-old daughter. Despite the financial strain she loves the work.
But each year from the end of October until the following February the single mother is without paid work. Careful budgeting is crucial to retain her daughter's childcare place.
Finances are particularly tight during the Christmas holiday. ''I find giving presents really difficult because what's happened over the years is I seem to get all my bills at this time as well,'' she said. ''I don't see it as being a holiday.''
Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said universities were under ''significant financial pressure'' and had to adapt quickly to changes in student demand for courses. But she said students could also benefit from contact with casual staff who had professional experience in the field they were teaching.
Australian Education Union TAFE president Greg Barclay said many TAFE teachers were also employed casually, placing severe limitations on their lifestyles. Holidays away were ''not part of their reality'' and many faced an anxious wait this summer to find out if they would have work next year.
The Victorian TAFE Association estimates up to 2000 staff will be made redundant this year. But that figure does not include casual staff who might not get work next year.