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Academics as employers: accepting the responsibility

The casualisation of academia means that academics in ongoing and fixed-term roles increasingly wield proxy-employer powers over their colleagues who are employed as tutors and research assistants. In this post, I argue that academics need to think carefully about how this power is wielded. This does not mean accepting such power is desirable. Rather, it means more explicitly acknowledging that inequitable employment relations exist between academics, and then articulating and accepting the responsibilities that these inequities entail.

Academic as employers

Most academics would prefer more equitable employment relations. Among other things, inequitable working conditions can stymie collaborative working relationships and prevent long-term collaborations.

However, the growth of casual employment, and the extension of casual employment deeper into academic careers, has meant that current working relations are highly inequitable. There are around 60,000 academics in casual employment in Australia alone. In most cases, these academics directly report to another academic on an ongoing or fixed-term contract.

While casual academics are formally recruited and hired by their universities, the wafer-thin nature of casual contracts gives permanent staff considerable proxy-employer powers. Casual academic employment is essentially piece-rate work, with no obligation to employ casual academic staff beyond any given task or hour. As a result, securely employed academics can effectively hire and fire their casual colleagues. The latter is alarmingly straightforward: a unit convener can usually end a tutor’s employment simply by not contacting him or her for the next available work.

The consequence of this informal but effective dismissal for casual staff can be severe. Casual academics are often on low annual incomes, despite sometimes having misleadingly high hourly wages. One lost teaching contract can be the difference between a living wage and financial crisis.

The vulnerability of casual staff to dismissal, and the high costs of such dismissal, is a significant barrier to raising employment issues or concerns. Even permanent staff are reluctant to raise employment issues with their heads of department, deans or vice-chancellors, despite having fairly secure employment conditions and a living wage. How much more difficult, then, is it for casual staff to raise employment concerns with their immediate academic supervisors, when casual staff have no employment security, and when losing one contract might mean not being able to pay the rent?

Responsible employer practice

Recognising the proxy-employer power academics wield over their casual colleagues means thinking carefully about the responsibilities such power entails.

This does not mean accepting that casual employment is desirable. To the contrary, I would argue that ongoing and fixed-term academics’ comparatively privileged positions creates an ethical responsibility to advocate both within universities and in public for more secure employment conditions for their academic colleagues who are casually employed.

However, until more equitable conditions are achieved, securely employed academics need to ensure that their proxy-employer powers are used as transparently and responsibly as the structural inequities in academic employment allow.

Three initial suggestions are below.

  1. Pre-empting employment concerns

Since casual academics’ structural position inhibits them raising issues, academics need to pre-empt potential concerns as far as possible, and also make time and space to initiate discussions.

I have often heard ongoing academics state that casual staff on their units have no complaints. While this may be true, unit conveners will not necessarily hear these complaints because casual staff fear to raise them. Because the stakes are high, such fear can persist even in otherwise respectful and collegial working relations.

Hence, academics in proxy-employer roles need to anticipate and address areas of likely conflict. Unlike casual staff, ongoing academics face little risk in raising issues for discussion. Consider the vexed issue of academic authorship. For the casual research assistants, asking whether they will be an author on a paper risks creating an area of conflict – as all academics know only too well.

The structural inequity in academic employment voice places the onus on the employing academic to initiate authorship discussions early in the research relationship. Often, this discussion is put off until too late, when the casual academic has invested considerable time in a project, or while facing considerable pressure to achieve publication, often to escape casual employment. By the project’s end his or her role has already been defined, so the opportunity for a casual staff member to step into an authorship role, or to amicably resolve disagreements about academic contribution, may have been lost.

  1. Cultivating career opportunities

Since casual academic work has no career path as such, I believe that permanent and fixed-term staff have a responsibility to at least work towards this end. Continuing the authorship example, this would imply that an employing academic has a responsibility to create opportunities for research assistants to be involved at an authorship level. Legitimate co-authorship can at least help develop an academic career after the research contract ends.

Academic unit conveners could also reflect on what they can offer their tutors longer term. This could mean advocating for paid professional development. It might also mean building on their working relationship with tutors by involving them in research collaborations or grant applicants.

  1. Timely and direct communication.

Finally, the imbalance in academic power, knowledge and wages places the onus on academics in proxy-employer roles to inform their casual colleagues as soon as possible about if they have a tutoring job next semester, and about when the next stage of a research project will start.

While poor communication between any academic can be frustrating, it does not directly affect the wages of academics in ongoing or fixed-term roles. By contrast, casual academics need to know when work is happening because they only get paid when it does.

Reluctant to be seen as a nuisance, many casual staff will silently sweat on employment offers that are not forthcoming until a week or two before semester starts. Or they will wait quietly for the next stage of a research project to begin while anxiously watching their bank balance dwindle.

Accepting the responsibility

Why do academics not always initiate these kinds of discussions? I suspect that one reason is that academics in ongoing and fixed-term roles – myself included – are often reluctant to consider ourselves as actual or proxy employers. An unsettling discovery of my first research account as a fixed-term academic was that I suddenly had the kind of arbitrary power over research assistants that I had often been on the receiving end of in my own many years employed on casual contracts. Clearly though, ignoring this power, or wishing it was not there, did not make it go away.

My argument is that the inequity of power between academics needs to be acknowledged and addressed more explicitly. While by no means a perfect solution, formally accepting that academics have proxy-employer powers, and then being as transparent and accountable as possible about how they are used, would at least improve on the status quo. Negotiating, promoting and adhering to principles for working responsibly with colleagues who are employed casually is also one practical commitment to changing the inequities in academic culture that current employment conditions induce.

We – meaning all academics, whatever our contractual conditions and roles, then need to think collectively, seriously and urgently about how we respond to the environment that has created this imbalance in employment power to begin with.

Dale Tweedie is a fixed-term Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney.  He has also researched on trends in, and consequences of, insecure employment in Australia and abroad.

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