you're reading...
Experiences, Health and wellbeing, Policies, Why I'm here

The Arrogance of Wizards, or A View From Dumbledore’s Office

Prof Andrew Vann is the Vice Chancellor of Charles Sturt University, Australia. We invite a wide range of views into CASA on how casualisation came about and how we might now proceed, because we know that those working casually can’t solve these problems on their own—except by walking away. CASA readers, you’re really warmly invited to comment or ask questions. 

This post came out of a discussion around the MOOCs session I ran at the Universities Australia Conference earlier this year. Kate pointed out the absence of any mention or representation of casualisation on the conference agenda, and I had to agree.

So a reasonable question would be: why did I not notice it before?

One possible answer is that CSU has a relatively low level of casuals compared to the sector. This is notwithstanding some brief notoriety due to an embarrassing error in our data returns, that multiplied the number of casuals by ten so that it appeared as 4100 rather than 410. (The error also earned a moderately stern telling off from the feisty Julie Hare in the Australian’s High Wired column.) However, another possible answer might be that for Vice Chancellors generally, casualisation is not one of the things that keeps us awake at night. Why would this be, and is it right?

In his One Thought To Start Your Day blog, Alex Usher has written a series of pieces on sessionals in the Canadian context but the lessons are, I think, also applicable to Australia. For a long period of time through the 1990s, Australian universities were funded at a rate lower than professional wage increases. There was investment in technology, but much of it was directed at admin systems and no-one really believes there were significant productivity gains from this. As far as I can tell, no-one believes that we have gotten more efficient at the fundamental practice of teaching either, except in so far as we have increased class sizes. (I believe there have been effective innovations, but they’ve mostly not been successfully applied at scale yet).

Let’s also acknowledge, without rehashing the entire quality as exclusivity debate, that we have also expanded access to the system to include students who have a lower level of educational capital than we used to service. One would expect this to increase teaching costs. There has been at the same time an expectation of increased performance, at least as measured by student satisfaction (and again let’s not immediately have a debate about the validity of that), and increased quality through initiatives such as AUQA and TEQSA which have required a far more professional approach to planning and documentation than was ever required previously (and are the source of much of the academic criticism of administrivia and bureaucracy).

All in all then, we are faced with a cost problem which, other things being equal, requires a reduction in the cost of teaching labour if universities are to keep their budgets balanced (and failing to achieve that is one of the things most likely to cost a VC their job and future livelihood). That can be achieved by extracting more work from existing staff or by finding a way to employ cheaper staff.

What have the staff unions been doing in this period? Well, staff have felt increasingly under pressure and this has been channelled into an understandable desire to have that recognised by being paid more for the more demanding job they are now doing. Unfortunately, this creates a positive feedback loop because this makes permanent staff still more expensive. The unions have also bargained hard for improved job security, reduced use of fixed term contracts and more generous severance provisions.

As a kicker, the funding environment has become much more uncertain as governments have sought budget savings from higher education and have introduced more and more market-driven thinking into the sector. Therefore, holding increasingly expensive full time staff with large redundancy entitlements is also not a very appealing prospect if you need to manage risk, which you do. At least recently the NTEU in particular has chased a reduction in casual staff numbers, although without suggesting that this was an important enough priority to trump wage rise claims.

So there we go, clearly not the fault of saintly Vice-Chancellors and all down to the evil unions, greedy staff or uncaring government? Except …. all of that Enterprise Bargaining had two sides to it and university managements agreed to the bargains they struck. And along with the investment in administrative systems, universities could have been investing more significantly in teaching development and pedagogical change to seek efficiency (quite a lot of this happened, but generally management has been shy of making PD for teaching mandatory for example).

But a couple of paragraphs back I said ‘other things being equal’ and I think there’s also a missing ingredient in this story. The missing ingredient is research. In the same period described above, research productivity has increased markedly, at least in terms of quantity. Some of this is due to an increased focus on research management but I suspect quite a lot is to do with technological innovation.

When I started my PhD, a literature search involved walking to the library, filling in a paper form, waiting for a week or two for the search to be done, manually trawling the titles or abstracts of the papers, then requesting the journals or books via inter-library loan, then waiting for that to arrive before discovering that paper wasn’t really what you wanted. I wouldn’t say that literature searches are exactly instantaneous now but it must be two to three orders of magnitude quicker than it was. On top of that, I had one of the first copies of Word in my department in 1990 and people still needed typists. Now, there are few people who can’t pull together their own copy in electronic form.

So where has all the efficiency liberated by research technology gone? Most of it has been invested back into research and this has happened all across the world. If as a global sector we truly valued teaching, we could have invested that time in teaching and learning to reduce pressure there. We could have used the work effort freed up to hire more staff, but we didn’t. Why not?

I can’t prove this, and I have colleagues that disagree with me, but one of the issues I see in academia is that it is fundamentally competitive, predominantly in research, and almost to the death. It seems as though everyone is trying to prove themselves as one of the smartest people in the world through publication in the highest prestige outlet available. One of the truisms I developed early in my career was “academia is a bad place to be, because your competition is the smartest people in the world who would gladly work themselves to death for free”. I think this has truth at the individual level but also at the organisational level – like the peacock’s tail, research becomes a display mechanism that signifies organisational fitness and hence attracts both staff and students – at least that is the conventional wisdom. However, this does have an impact at the individual level. This quote from one of CASA’s weekly roundups rang a bell for me (original quote is from Overworked TA – Eds):

Being overworked and putting ourselves and our needs last is unhealthy.  Let’s just call it that.  Just shout it out and breathe easier.  It’s not okay.  When you aren’t getting sleep, food, exercise, and time with your family, you aren’t meeting your basic human needs.  Remind yourself of these things.

This is not just an issue for casual staff; as has been seen in a wide range of commentary there is a concern about the pressures of academic life. Certainly, at times I felt this way as a (tenured) junior academic. I probably haven’t lost that sense as I have become more senior, although I think I have become much better at self-protection (and I have the exceptional luxury of personal support staff).

And yet we crave our place in this cohort of people. Is it just naked intellectual competition? A less ego-driven explanation might be that those of us committed to higher education are wired to seek a deep understanding of the world and this is the subconscious driver that forces us to use every scrap of our energy to pursue it. Why else would I be doing this on a Sunday afternoon and trying to think the issue through instead of shrugging my shoulders and getting on with things?

It also needs to be noted that once we are in the position to get an academic post we have huge sunk costs and an alternative career can seem unthinkable. Even though it’s possible (and I sometimes used to wonder) that there would be more time to think deeply in a regular job than working as an academic. Whatever the conscious or subconscious explanation, one of my concerns is that we may have constructed a system that destructively tests individuals.

So, it’s true, a lot of this is driven by governments’ desire for measurable performance, a lot of it is driven by Vice Chancellors and University Councils who want to see their organisation out-compete the rest, and some of it is driven by a funding system which ratchets up efficiency pressures. But quite a bit of it comes from the flocking behaviour of the collected collegium. What stories are told around coffee tables in academic staff rooms about what really counts and what it takes to succeed? Often the dominant narrative is about research performance and there is (misguided) encouragement to treat teaching and learning as being something that needs to be done but not worthy of deep attention. When I have deployed resources to achieve organisational change, the most frequent request from full-time academics is to be able to buy out their teaching to be able to concentrate on (or protect) their research. This of course also increases the demand to have casual staff because generally academics are very wary of stepping out of their substantive role completely and allowing someone else to fill it full-time.

So, what to do? I think we do have a problem and it is time to take a pause. Firstly, we do need to question whether the system overall is delivering outcomes that work for the participants. We need to stop and remember that casual staff are human beings. We need systems that allow them to plan their lives and get some certainty about career direction. We need to make sure that schools don’t only discover their requirements at the last minute and we need to ensure we communicate effectively and make casual staff feel a genuine part of the academic community.

The title of this post came from the Harry Potter analogy that sprang to my mind about the correspondence between house elves in the Hogwarts universe and casual staff in the modern university system. Absolutely indispensable and underpinning the health of the whole system, but largely ignored and with few of the ‘main characters’ giving much thought to them. However, in writing this, I was reminded of the alleged Chinese curses: “may you live in interesting times, may you come to the attention of those in authority, may you find what you are looking for”.

Because if there are to be more full-time permanent positions created within the current funding constraints (and these aren’t going to get any better in all honesty) there will certainly be fewer of them. So whilst some people would land the permanent jobs they are looking for, these positions would be even more intensely competitive and there will be as many more disappointed academic job-seekers.

I am not sure what the path forward is from here, but I think we need to tread carefully. The solutions will not be simple and there will be trade-offs. But, as with most things in life, the fact that the path is uncertain should not stop us from walking it.


About andrewvann

Vice-Chancellor and President at Charles Sturt University


9 thoughts on “The Arrogance of Wizards, or A View From Dumbledore’s Office

  1. Thanx for this post, which I found covered the issues very well.

    I think it is worth pursuing an international measure of teaching quality, and the OECD’s assessment of higher education learning outcomes still seems to me to have potential, as limited as it may be. For as reductive and unattractive as this may be, it may challenge the current ranks dominated by research (ARWU), rubbishy surveys (QS) or a combination of the 2 (THE). If, as is posited, casuals undermine teaching quality, this should be demonstrated in ranks of teaching quality which in turn would encourage universities to reduce their reliance on casuals.

    Posted by Gavin Moodie | April 9, 2014, 1:24 am
    • Thanks Gavin, I agree absolutely about the problems of the research-focussed rankings. I’m not sure where AHELO had got to but noting your comments about reductiveness and unattractiveness last time I had a good look (which was a couple of years back when the Australian involvement was just kicking off) it did seem to have the potential to become very complicated and costly. Also I think they were looking at a written test as the gold standard assessment of graduate outcomes – I’m a little sceptical that that would capture everything you’d want and just as prestige-based research rankings it would also inevitably drive universities to teach to the test just as we’ve seen with NAPLAN in schools.

      One idea I’ve pushed a bit is some sort of equivalent to the HEA which would allow university staff to develop a sense of professionalism around teaching. ALTC was starting to encourage this but the sudden axeing as an independent body didn’t help, for all the good work OLT are doing.

      I think it’s also important to say, at least from my perspective, that it is not casual staff themselves that potentially undermine teaching quality (and I rather think that teaching quality is mostly vastly better than it was when I was a student) but poor use of them by the system. In my experience in professional disciplines casual staff bring a lot of relevant experience to the classroom and often do a brilliant job.

      Posted by andrewvann | April 12, 2014, 6:01 pm
  2. Prof Vann,

    The NTEU greatly appreciates the concern you took to write this piece and outline problems in the plight of casual academic staff in Australia.

    Just to get this clear, are you proposing greater support and a better deal for casual academic staff without their conversion to permanent positions? Are you suggesting fixed terms positions?

    And is your argument also focused at fixing the current ‘funding constraints’? If you have a perspective on this matter pre-bidget it would be great to have this aired.


    NTEU National Policy and Research Officer

    Posted by Jen | April 10, 2014, 1:49 pm
    • HI Jen,

      As noted in the piece, we are below sector average in terms of casualisation. To be honest, and to answer your second question first, we need to wait and see what’s in the budget before we think about doing anything because if it contains nasty surprises bets could be off on any number of things. As you will know Universities Australia and Vice-Chancellors have been lobbying heavily for the protection of higher ed funding but we will just have to see what eventuates.

      To go back to the first one, (and of course without prejudice to any future discussions we might have with the NTEU round the bargaining table) I would like to be sure within CSU that we are planning ahead as far as we can to minimise the issues in regard to short timelines for engaging casuals. I would also like to review induction processes for casual staff. According to our internal staff opinion survey our casual staff are for the most part very much more positive about the university than contract or permanent staff – although not on understanding the organisation direction, how to make complaints, performance review, benefits (super and leave), teaching evaluation and surprise surprise, whether they’re still likely to be working with us in two years’ time. However, we may have a much larger number of sessional staff who work with us as a second job rather than seeking a permanent role with us so that may distort the figures.

      I also think we will need to be doing some longer-term thinking about workforce structures. The increasing move to online is likely to lead to higher quality and higher cost media-rich learning resources and I expect that will shift staffing structures over the next 5-10 years.

      However, just want to reiterate what I put in the post, (a) the current situation has flowed from quite a number of factors so it is not fixable by university management without help and assent from others and (b) improving some aspects would likely make others worse, so we will need to have a good conversation about what we might wish to change.

      Posted by andrewvann | April 12, 2014, 5:50 pm
  3. The house-elf analogy is troubling. Obedient, subservient, marked by deprivation, mistreated – and above all, taking pleasure in their own subjugation. But, as Dumbledore acknowledges in the Order of the Phoenix, house elves (casual staff) are what they have been made by wizards (University managers): “Kreacher is what he has been made by wizards, Harry. … And whatever Kreacher’s faults, it must be admitted that Sirius did nothing to make Kreacher’s lot easier.”

    Posted by Agnes | April 15, 2014, 10:37 am
    • Yes it is a troubling analogy and I was concerned that it might be misread. My thoughts were that the lack of consideration of the importance of their contribution, and the assumption that they must be happy with their lot, was the part of the analogy that was most interesting.

      Posted by andrewvann | April 18, 2014, 9:10 am


  1. Pingback: The house that higher education built | CASA - April 15, 2014

  2. Pingback: In service to justice | CASA - June 17, 2014

  3. Pingback: All sides | CASA - April 21, 2016

We welcome your thoughts (update: oldest comments now appear first!)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: