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It gets worse

This post is co-authored by Jonathan O’Donnell of The Research Whisperer and by Kate Bowles and  Karina Luzia of CASA. It has been cross-posted to both blogs. We’re glad to be back in action at CASA — we had to take a break, and we’ve used the time to reflect on how best we can work together to achieve real change, in this budgetary and cultural context that is rapidly worsening the experience of university work for #auscasuals.

It Gets Better’ is a great program, hosted in the United States, that aims to tell…

“…lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them.”

The message is a simple one: Growing up is hard. School is crap, but don’t despair. It gets better.

This is a really effective campaign because it has found a way to tell the truth and help the people who need it.


It Gets Worse!We need a similar campaign for our hourly, adjunct, casual, sessional (HACS) academics, and for PhD students who dream of becoming professors one day.

The problem is that while we would love to be able to say that it gets better, we can’t. For the majority who undertake the PhD in the hope of securing a higher education academic career with access to the fullest range of benefits, it gets worse.

The situation isn’t getting better for HACS any time soon, and we need to start telling the truth about this. Recently, Jonathan had a heartbreaking conversation with one of his researchers about getting out of academia. He doesn’t want to – he loves teaching and he loves research. But it is time to buy a house and start a family, and he can’t do that in the position he’s in.

Here’s why: HACS are the majority of academic employees, and are fundamental to the survival of universities, but in return they forfeit security for themselves. They are employed by the hour and can be dismissed with no notice. After completing seven to ten years of higher education, they have the same prospect of job security as people stacking shelves in supermarkets. They are typically working part-time, or are working at multiple universities to stitch together the equivalent of a full-time wage.

It gets worse

Universities in the UK have recently introduced zero-hour contracts, which make no promises about actual work while seeking to limit people’s investment in seeking work elsewhere. A zero-hours contract is to employment what a parking permit is to university parking: if there are no spaces, you don’t get to park even though you have a qualifying sticker (that you paid quite a considerable amount for). All it provides is permission to search, and queue, and hope, and hang about until someone leaves.

When it comes to hiring, universities are only slowly coming around to transparent or competitive processes for HACS. That makes them vulnerable to the most unpredictable, despotic, discriminatory and divisive hiring practices, as the search for work becomes a de-professionalising hustle while the work itself becomes a cobbling together of bits and pieces from casual teaching, ‘soft’ money, and short-term contracts.

It gets worse

HACS are also blocked from accessing opportunities to improve their position. They are not eligible to apply for grants. They have limited access to professional development, or do so in their own time and at their own cost. They fund their own employment to a significant degree: universities hand out paid mobile phones as perks for those in already highly remunerated and resourced leadership roles, while HACS bring all their own tech resources – laptops, mobiles, cords, chargers – sometimes to a hot-desk, sometimes just near an available wall socket – to manage the routine university teaching, assessment and record-keeping that’s now online.

When it comes to decision-making and university planning, HACS are often not included in staff meetings, even those that directly affect their own employment circumstances. They are rarely consulted on the development of policies and procedures that affect their working lives. They sit on the periphery of the departments and schools that they teach in, sometimes for years. They cannot apply for promotion. A sector that is scrupulous about ensuring students are represented in governance at every level up to Council routinely forgets to value in the insights of HACS academics.

It gets worse

“There is also a general reluctance for universities to invest in professional development for contingent staff due to the perceived lack of long term organisational benefit. These intangible disadvantages also result in early career academics being unable to gain security outside the work environment, such as seeking home loans, placing strain on social relationships due to the general insecurity factor.” – S Andrews, L Bare, P Bentley, L Goedegebuure, C Pugsley, and B Rance, 2016. Contingent academic employment in Australian universities. LH Martin Institute and AHEIA:Melbourne [412 kb PDF].

Crucially for ECRs, HACS are also often locked out of university research funding schemes. In a system where employment and promotion are contingent on research funding, many universities and funding agencies bar them from applying because they aren’t defined as university employees. Without the capacity to apply for funds in their own right, they are locked into doing research assistant work for others. At best, this results in short-term contracts where their critical early career research development is subordinated to what other people want to do. They don’t have the resources or the freedom to develop their own research trajectory, build their own profile for original work, or follow up on their PhD research.

It gets worse

All HACS, regardless of their academic career aspirations, are excluded from paid parental leave, unfair dismissal claims, carers’ leave and compassionate leave, not to mention recreation leave and sick leave. When HACS get sick and miss a class, the university promptly deducts their pay, even if this means they are most likely to be the ones making up the work later in consultation. In Australia, they get half the pension (superannunation) contribution of permanent staff, a discriminatory impact that multiplies the longer they wait in line. In other countries, they may get no pension payment at all.

In short, the situation is this: an employment category that was originally designed to cover temporary, short-term gaps in staffing has grown to become the predominant employment mechanism at universities, and universities have completely failed to update their policies, their processes or their self-representation to acknowledge this or handle it properly. Instead, universities have locked themselves into a budget box where hourly-paid workers are core to their business survival [412 kb PDF], while having to hide this fact to protect their public image.

Can it get better?

If we want to change this inequitable system, we need to make it visible, and we need to challenge the language used to make it seem like an opportunity and an advantage. ‘Flexible’, for example, isn’t a friendly word in this space.

In particular, we need to let prospective higher degree students know what prospective employment looks like. As CASA said recently, “PhD recruitment [is] … increasingly looking like a scheme to develop an academically qualified casual workforce for the future.” That is, to perpetuate a system of inequality to keep university workforce costs as low as possible.

Some academics, particularly in the USA, have recently begun talking to their students about their adjunct status, so that the students understand why they aren’t always available, and cannot undertake unpaid extra work. In Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has begun a similar campaign, with a focus on persuading securely hired academics to stand more openly with their HACS colleagues.

One simple strategy for people coming out of a PhD is to set a term limit on how long they will work insecurely. Jonathan has two friends who were in this situation for years. One found her first permanent position after 10 years. The other was forty before she found herself in a permanent position. It is up to each individual to decide how long they are willing to wait. However, making them aware that they should set a term limit is a structural change.

Another structural change is to let all the parties affected know what is going on. Industry associations, for example, have a vested interest in ensuring that future employees are properly educated. They sit on course advisory committees, industry advisory committees, and other governance structures. Professional standards bodies hold similar roles – they govern how courses are taught, and the standards that govern what constitutes a professional degree. Perhaps they don’t care that most of their future employees, future professional members, are being taught this way. Maybe they do.

Finally, as a long-time member of his union, Jonathan argues that we need to continue to encourage the NTEU in its efforts to focus on achieving justice and improved working conditions for HACS, and make union membership effective for HACS academics. This is a work-in-progress that all union members should invest in and support.

A colleague recently pointed out to Jonathan that many academics have never thought about doing anything else except being an academic. That single-minded determination is great for getting through a PhD and focusing on research. It isn’t so helpful in recognizing that merit and resilience won’t fix the current academic job market. We need to imagine the PhD differently and promote it more honestly.

This may mean strengthening the pathway to non-academic careers.

Or it may mean reimagining and crucially reconfiguring our ideas around what it is to be an academic and to do academic work, to reflect a reality that includes those academics, teachers and researchers, whose HACS employment status has meant they are not counted in all those things that matter in higher education.

We will all be better off when we can say to PhD students that it’s worth the effort, because it gets better.

But we’re not there yet.

For now, it gets worse!

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