What are EFRs and why have your teachers been on strike over them?

EFRs are academic positions where teaching makes up a greater proportion of an academic’s workload than in traditional “40:40:20” roles, in some cases up to 70 or 80%.

The issue of Education Focussed Roles (EFRs) was a key reason for the members of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) taking strike action in Weeks Six and Seven of Semester, and remains an unresolved point in enterprise negotiations between University management and the NTEU. So what are EFRs and why are staff concerned about them?

EFRs are academic positions where teaching makes up a greater proportion of an academic’s workload than in traditional “40:40:20” roles. In a 40:40:20 position — the traditional model of academic work — an academic’s workload is made up of 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% administration. In an education focussed role, teaching can make up to 80% of an academic workload, which comes at the expense of time to conduct research.

Management at the University of Sydney are proposing a dramatic expansion of these EFRs. Under their current proposal, management would be able to employ up to 25% of the non-casual academic workforce in EFR positions. The previous cap, which expired in 2021, meant that the University could only employ up to 120 staff in EFRs. This means that under the current proposal, management could employ up to 650 EFRs, a 440% increase. Just ten years ago, there were no EFR staff employed at the University at all. The NTEU is seeking that EFRs be capped at 20% of the non-casual academic workforce, already having conceded to a large expansion of EFRs.

So, why are staff opposed to EFRs and why does the University want them?

 Unsustainable Workloads

Currently, EFRs have workloads of (in theory, at least) 70% teaching, which can be increased to 80% by agreement. The University is proposing in the new agreement that an “absolute maximum” teaching load of 70% be imposed, with a reduction of that amount to 60% for two years for staff in level A (Associate Lecturer) and level B (Lecturer) positions. This also applies to staff in level C (Senior Lecturer) positions who have not been previously employed in an academic position. Under this model, staff in EFRs would be allocated 20% of their time to research, and 10% for “engagement, service and administration.” The NTEU is seeking that a uniform cap of 60% be applied, across the life of the three-year enterprise agreement. 

With overwork already a key issue in the bargaining process, increased EFRs pose a threat of increasing these concerns. Mike Beggs and Beck Pearse explained in an article in Overland, that “the teaching-intensive academic finds themselves without evenings, without weekends, and still feeling like they are cutting corners, teaching beyond their expertise, putting together last-minute slides week after week, staying awake through the mind-numbing task of marking hundreds of essays, throwing their lives into the job and then still dreading their students’ evaluations at the end of each semester.”

Throughout the bargaining process, staff have explained that they are chronically overworked. Much of this overwork stems from the differences between the University’s estimate for how long work should take compared with the time actually taken. In particular, USyd does not give academics enough time to mark students’ work, with casual academic Riki Scanlan recently tweeting that it takes them twice as long to mark work (if they are to give detailed, rather than generic, feedback) as the University estimates. This pattern similarly plays out across allocations for lecture and tutorial preparation time. 


The University of Sydney admitted in 2021 to stealing $12.75 million in staff wages, something which members of the USyd Casuals Network describe as the “tip of the iceberg”. Australian universities have stolen more than $100 million from staff since 2020, according to the NTEU, much of this is based on time-calculations of unpaid teaching work. 

Accordingly, it is likely that academics in EFRs will have to do much more work than they are allocated to do, meaning that they will be overworked and prone to suffering burnout. This places doubt on the University’s claim that EFRs can deliver teaching excellence in the long-term.

Educational Quality

In an all-staff email, entitled “Why we need EFRs”, Provost Annamarie Jagose argued that the University needs more EFRs because, as specialist teachers, EFRs are best able to deliver students quality education.

This is something that academics and the NTEU contest. In a message shared to Twitter, former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Derrick Armstrong — who was responsible for introducing EFRs at USyd — said that EFRs “have become … a teaching workforce through which the University can reduce its costs by extractive labour”.  EFRs allow universities to hire fewer academics to meet their teaching needs. As Beggs and Pearse explained, EFRs allow management to hire one academic to complete the workload that would have otherwise been completed by two. As an institution, USyd admits that it is heavily reliant on international students to generate revenue, USyd is using EFRs to shoulder the burden of this unsustainable business model. The University’s commitment to fill 220 of its promised new 330 ongoing (non-casual) roles with staff in EFRs further suggests that EFRs are more about reducing costs than delivering excellent teaching.

Even if we are to accept the University’s motive for introducing EFRs, their logic behind whether EFRs themselves are stronger teachers than 40:40:20 academics is flawed. In her email, Jagose argued that the imperative for introducing EFRs is due to USyd’s low scores on its teaching efficacy. She acknowledged that as part of this, “students tell us that they struggle to transition to study at USyd. Even before COVID-19, they reported a poor sense of belonging, a key indicator of future success and satisfaction.” But introducing EFRs seems to in no way solve these problems, which are borne of the exclusionary, and corporate way, the University presents to all students —  particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

At the core of this argument is the assumption that EFRs are better teachers because they spend more time on teaching, and on teaching-specific training. However, it should be noted that this extra time comes at the expense of research; university is not high-school. A key aspect of the educational experience is the fact that academics are both academics and researchers, and up to date with the latest research, often producing it themselves. Academics’ ability to do research allows them to tailor courses to their new research, answer students’ questions in more depth, and suggest new directions and methodologies for students’ own work, among many other benefits. The trade-off management makes with EFRs means students will be denied regular access to this expertise. This is not to say that many staff in EFRs are not, or could not be, excellent teachers — it is just that many EFRs would be better teachers if not forced away from research. 

Impact on Career Progression

The final key issue between management and the NTEU regarding EFRs is the ability for education focussed academics to transition into 40:40:20 positions. The University is promising a right to transition after effectively five years — provided the academic meets certain expectations regarding research, with certain approvals, and has given notice a year prior. The Union is seeking improvements to this, noting that the proposal would make it harder for EFRs to transition.

One Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) academic in an EFR told Honi that despite receiving positive reviews for their work, receiving Faculty awards, publishing education literature, and developing strong relationships with students and teachers, they were only offered the same position again, with no possibility for advancement. Whilst the staff member argued that there is an opportunity to correctly develop EFRs who have the appropriate support and workload, they said that this was not occurring in faculties like FASS.  

They said, “there are no EFR academics that I know of in FASS beyond Level C (senior lecturer), a huge disincentive for young academics, particularly those who care about teaching and want to specialise in it, and a clear reflection of the value the Faculty places in them. 

“We are seen as second-class citizens.”

The other key problem regarding career progression for EFRs is that they are significantly less able to perform research. In academia, career progression is contingent on research quality and volume — both when seeking internal promotion and external appointment. By making it significantly harder for EFRs to do research, these academics will likely fall behind their peers and be less able to advance their careers.

This leads to concerns among academics that — in a workplace where tenured Professors already earn well over a hundred thousand dollars more than most junior academics  — the mass expansion of EFRs will lead to a stratification of academic life. Balanced academics will have better positions, a stronger reputation, and greater access to knowledge of the state of research, and long-term EFRs will be burdened by a stalling career and overwork. This is harmful to faculties as a whole: collegial work environments are not only good for staff well-being, but allow the collaboration necessary for the best teaching and research, as work is collectively developed and knowledge is shared.


The planned proliferation of EFRs at USyd follows the mass expansion of these roles at universities across the country. Though universities will not admit it, this expansion has been driven by a desire to cut costs and continue to corporatise tertiary education. However, staff who enter into these roles suffer from overwork and diminished career prospects. It is profoundly unfair for the university sector to pursue cost-cutting in such a way, particularly when they are not proven to improve educational quality and result in a stratified academy. 
Staff at USyd, and indeed at UNSW among others, have been on strike over EFRs because they are harmful to those in the positions and universities-at-large. Students shouldn’t accept management’s inaccurate claims about them.

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