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CASA weekly news 07/14

Here’s our weekly news, with all good thoughts to Australian casual academics who are currently counting the real-time cost of mid semester grading.

What’s going on?

Two big higher education policy reports thumped on the desk in Australia, and will get wide coverage, so here we’re just looking at how they address the question of casualisation. (“Indirectly” would sum it up.)

The Grattan Institute “Doubtful Debt: the rising cost of students loans” is pretty much what it says on the tin. Unrecovered education debt is projected to rise to $13bn by 2017, and the report sets out measures for more effective debt recovery, including by chasing up deceased estates.

Part of the problem involves university graduates who don’t reach the income threshold to trigger debt recovery because they’re working part-time. But casual academic work doesn’t fit the picture painted by the report, which is of professional part-time employment as a consequence of marriage or parenting, rather than the snaking queue for full-time work.

And of course, many long-term casuals are hit by both waves at once: balancing part-time work with family responsibilities, and at the same time holding on to part-time academic work in the hope that a full-time academic job will open up. At least one consequence of this is extended education debt that makes it progressively harder to quit casual academic work for something else that won’t mean going backwards.

The Report of the Review of the Demand-Driven Funding System is a much-anticipated review of changes to the way universities are funded. The Ministerial press release in response is here. The Universities Australia press release in response is here. The Regional Universities Network response is here.

The Review has a strong focus on both the quality of teaching, and the innovative use of technology, and it uses as key data national survey evidence that Australian students are becoming more satisfied with their experience. There’s also some specific focus on support resources for underprepared students.

But despite whole sections on the teaching quality, and on some of the initiatives in place to support “academics” or “teaching staff”, there’s no acknowledgement of the proportion of these teachers who are hired at the last minute, who don’t have input into curriculum or assessment design, and have very uneven access to the kinds of professional development that the report champions.

And the definition of “technology” in this paragraph is really interesting:

There are many examples of online technology being used to improve teaching. Griffith University has introduced a US-based online tutor service, SmartThinking. It provides 24 hour assistance to students on specific subjects and more general advice on essay writing. A Griffith evaluation found a positive reaction from students and an apparent increase in grades among users of SmartThinking compared to non-users.

(SmartThinking is a technology in the sense that a telephone is a technology because it connects you to a call centre. Casual academics who want to know more about the vision of tutoring in the future might want to check this link.)

Also in Australia this week, the Quality in Postgraduate Research conference was very active on Twitter, and the President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations gave a speech on the value of completing a PhD for its own sake, and opposing the idea that “you could ever train too many PhDs”.

What’s going on elsewhere?

The Association of University Professors in the US released annual data on academic salaries, noting that these have gone up a bit but are largely stagnant. The report didn’t include part-time positions at all, and triggered further discussion of “administrative bloat, and the widening gap between different academic ranks in the American system.

Jennifer B. Hulehan, a technical college department head, published a collection of images of adjunct office space submitted after a call on Twitter.

Eleanor Dickey, Professor of Classics at the University of Reading, published the results of an informal survey of PhD qualified applicants who have not found permanent employment.

Clearly the problem is a major one, and the people suffering from it are deserving of help from the academic community: one respondent said that we don’t owe them jobs, and that may be true, but having in most cases led them to believe that if they were good enough things would work out, we owe them something better than the circumstances to which these excellent scholars are currently subjected. 

On the same topic, another quietly painful essay on not getting an academic job here–as ever, the comments are revealing.

Taking action

Graduate teachers, or “fractionals”, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London formed an alliance with the college cleaners union, supported by student activists, and are preparing for a joint protest later this month.

This alliance is logical. The cleaners are, like them, essential to the functioning of the institution, yet marginalised in an increasingly stratified workforce. The democracy campaigners, like them, view the hoarding of bureaucratic authority by university managements as a danger to education. And students, left with soaring debts and working precarious jobs, increasingly experience the institutions as authoritarian work farms.

Students at the University of Wolverhampton launched a small, supportive petition to ask their Vice Chancellor to end the marking boycott by reaching “a fair agreement with the lecturers of this university“.

In a short video here, three Maryland adjunct organisers explain why they are supporting a push to join their local SIEU branch.

The Times Higher Education has a good survey of US adjunct unionisation initiatives here.

Summertime blues

Since 2010, the New Faculty Majority: National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity have been running a campaign to provide resources and support for contingent instructors who may be able to claim unemployment benefit between academic contracts. particularly over the summer. We’ve looked at the summer drought at CASA here. Josh Boldt is also looking at this and heard from a few #auscasuals:

And finally, what do universities and nursing homes have in common?

Taking a hard look at the glossy side of university marketing, Good Enough Professor compares this with nursing home brochures, and points out that what really matters isn’t the amenities or the view, but whether the staff are respected and supported to do their work well.

The choice of a college is much more complicated than the choice of a nursing home, and the people one meets outside the classroom can have as much effect on one’s experience as the instructors who do the teaching.  In both cases, though, the quality of a student’s intellectual experience is going to have a lot more to do with the way teaching work of the institution is conducted and valued.

US adjuncts have taken the opportunity to sign an open letter to college student parents now doing campus tours.

That’s it from us. Have a good week everyone, and thanks for all the links and activity on the #auscasuals timeline. As ever, you can find us at casualcasa at gmail dot com, and all comments are welcome.

@acahacker and @KateMfD



About Kate Bowles

Now blogging over at musicfordeckchairs.com


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