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Experiences, News

The house that higher education built

Thanks to a nudge from The Australian yesterday (“Academic union creates two classes of citizen on campus: Barber”) we took a break from our hosting duties at CASA to see if we remain on track with what we set out to do, and with the people we hoped would come along and join us. And we had a think about this house that higher education has built in Australia: about the view of the landscape that it offers, the way it looks to others from the outside, and about the house staff that keep it going.

News articles like these come around quite regularly. Higher education leaders and lobbyists get to explain casualisation as the inevitable consequence of something or other: unions, students, demand-driven funding, the economy in general, and even the freewheeling career choice of portfolio people, who like to mix it up a little. Back in February, for example:

“The massive increase in casual staff certainly reflects the demand-driven system, but it also reflects the changing nature of the workforce more generally and the fact that universities are under budgetary pressure,” said Universities Australia’s chief executive Belinda Robinson. “And casualisation suits a lot of people who take a portfolio approach to their career; they mix and match academic work with work in industry, consulting and so on.”

Bernard Lane and Julie Hare,  “Demand drives increase in casual staff at universities“, The Australian, Feb 5 2014

This is a neat sleight of hand. It’s not just that demand volatility is one of the causes of casualisation, but casual staff are also in the frontline for most of its impacts. Casual teachers are the human bridge between underprepared students and untested innovative teaching solutions; they’re deployed rapidly wherever demand pops up, regardless of their expertise; and when universities gaze into the mirror of student satisfaction data or learning analytics to see how well they’re doing, it’s the extraordinary work of  ‘the casuals’ that’s reflected back.

So now the spotlight wanders back to casualisation, and this time the NTEU are at fault for both holding back the digital age and blocking the careers of those who would rather teach than research—which has the novel bonus effect of implying that Vice Chancellors are looking to education technology as a way to expand the academic workforce.

[Former Vice-Chancellor Professor Jim Barber] argues that the union has an institutional interest in maintaining the near status quo whereby tenured staff are allowed to devote time to research, even if the output of this group is patchy.

“The union itself is responsible for creating two classes of citizen — those who are privileged by this entitlement, irrespective of output, to invest a considerable amount of their time in research, and those who aren’t — and those who aren’t are the casual staff who are not unionised,” he says.

Bernard Lane, “Academic  Union creates two classes of citizen on campus“, The Australian, April 14 2014

Thanks to Andy Vann’s CASA post on what Vice Chancellors have to do with casualisation, CASA also popped up in yesterday’s article, summed up like this: “CASA concedes that casual jobs suit some but points to the ill-effects of casualisation as a trend on student learning and working lives.” The mention is appreciated because we got in to this to raise awareness of casualisation across the sector, but it’s also prompted us to ask ourselves: given the very different people who have come to write at CASA, does CASA have a house view, and is this it?  On the first part, well no. Adjunct and sessional appointments might suit some, and we’re certainly ready to hear from Alan Kohler and any others on this point. But most of the people we hear from are those who are desperate to achieve more secure employment in the profession for which they were trained.

When we started, we knew that casualisation was already being researched, that it had union attention, that it was measured (more or less) and reported on, and that it was becoming more contentious in the context of risk mitigation. We knew Australian casual academics were speaking out, and that other higher education bloggers with a focus on research, teaching, technology or PhD support had started to draw attention to casualisation as a sleeper issue with wide, and unrecognised, impact on Australian universities.

We could also see that academic precarity had become an entrenched and increasingly bitter problem in the US, Canada and the UK; and that everywhere it knots together the keynote anxieties of technology, efficiency, research rankings, university funding and student debt.

So when yet another major Australian higher education conference airbrushed casualisation from its agenda, we set up CASA as an invitation to anyone who wanted to join us to begin the difficult conversation about the multiple negative impacts of casual work in universities, while apparently being the business solution universities can’t resist. And we’ve been really thrilled with the support for this from the people who’ve written, commented, read and passed on what’s being discussed here.

We’re here to be good hosts to all, but our focus is on supporting those whose do the casual work. Without their willingness to show up for insecure, insufficient and often disorganised employment, Australian universities wouldn’t be able to feel quite so positive about demand-driven funding as market incentive. And yet, their working experiences remain on the periphery of the way universities think and talk about themselves, lobby government, sell themselves to students and research stakeholders, and polish their brands.

If casual university staff do speak up about the injustices or inefficiencies in the ways that they’re hired, paid or supported, or complain about the consistently broken promises and the many ordinary, seemingly mundane ways they are excluded from giving their best to their profession or their discipline, they put themselves at obvious risk, because:

A casual Staff Member will not have any expectation of continuing employment. (Australian university Enterprise Agreement)

The stories of casual working experience voiced here show that this kind of managing-expectations clause in Enterprise Agreements doesn’t adequately manage the roller coaster of hope and disappointment as work is promised unofficially, doesn’t materialise (or is given to someone else, because cheaper) and then suddenly whispers in your ear as a late-night booty call—the offer you can’t refuse. It doesn’t reflect the stress of waiting for delayed payment because contracts were late, or work is unexpectedly being paid in arrears, or just because executive deans felt like it; it doesn’t help when you can’t pay your bills and your debts, or support your family. It doesn’t address the challenge of trying to keep your career hopes going through extended periods of short-term contracting; cobbling and patching together bits and pieces of tutoring and RA work, while watching your education debt growing silently in the basement—the debt from which death may not even release you.

And it doesn’t address the continuing insult and the shame of being kept out of view by your employer and many of your close colleagues because you don’t have an office, you’re not on the email list, your voice isn’t heard in meetings, your experience isn’t valued, you’re not invited to events that would help you hang on to your career, let alone develop it,  and your face is never going to be in the shiny brochure.

So CASA hosts a wide range of views, and encourages all to engage with each other, precisely because of the problem aptly illustrated in yesterday’s article: as long as casualisation continues to be palmed off as the result of inevitable factors or blamed on usual suspects, absolutely nothing changes in the way it’s experienced by those who do the work.

This is an open debate, that’s only just begun. None of the writers here are pitching simplistic solutions.  But conference after conference shows that undergraduate and postgraduate students have a voice in the national conversation about the house that Australian higher education wants to build in the future, as do educational technology companies, textbook companies, libraries, administrators, politicians, and business leaders.

And casual university staff should too.

So thanks to everyone who has joined us, cheers to The Australian for the mention, and on we go.

@acahacker and @KateMfd

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

Discussion

3 thoughts on “The house that higher education built

  1. Keep up the good work 🙂 I think the house resembles more of a Ponzi scheme, with those at the top having to keep ‘selling their wares’ (and tantalizing hopes) to all comers so that the edifice that is higher education keeps a’moving and growing. It starts at undergrad level (90% of jobs now need quals) and continues on … want a better job? you need a Masters. I wonder how many graduands move on to Masters degrees because they can’t find work, and ditto for the PhD stream. As to the academic hiring process, it is ambiguous, lacks transparency, and personal bias (i.e. nepotism/cronyism) is rife.

    Posted by Mandalay | April 15, 2014, 2:42 pm
  2. Thanks CASA for your eloquent response to this article, which, if correctly attributes the comments of a former VC as essentially blaming the NTEU for casualisation, is pretty outrageous. Last time I looked the union wasn’t responsible for university funding or devolved budget arrangements that seem to ensure there is never any money to hire academic staff. Indeed the union has been a lone voice at the bargaining table for some time arguing for regulation of casual numbers, conversions to more secure positions and for workforce planning. In response university managements have been at best silent and more often opposed to any efforts to improve the situation for casual staff – they seem to be either problems at someone else’s university, or problems to do with budgets (the same budgets which manage to stretch to cover the market salaries of the growing ranks of senior administrators).
    The truth is that all the risks associated with variable student numbers, international student flunctuations and funding constraints has been shifted onto the casual staff and to argue that universities have not been able to configure their workforces to meet changing circumstances is just wrong. Universities have more ‘flexible’ workforces than most other industries and admin roles are rapidly changing as well, not to mention the outsourcing of some first year provision to private outfits that is quietly taking place across many campuses. Casual employment is meant to be for work that is irregular and intermittent, universities have managed to drive a large hole in this regulatory gap and condemn a generation of highly trained and motivated individuals, our so called best and brightest, to a highly precarious existence and at the same time paying little attention to how the conditions of work for casual staff hinder their capacity to provide quality teaching.

    Posted by Robyn | April 15, 2014, 4:41 pm
  3. I now am grateful that casual teaching is often possible alongside my full time continuing professional staff role… But I’m only in a professional staff role because 2.5 years of patching together teaching (I filled in 7 time sheets every fortnight–on a single campus) with some RA work to get me through the holidays was clearly not leading to a real job. The department wasn’t even sure they would give me a job if I won an early career researcher grant.
    I research in my spare time, that doesn’t rely on a contract (I’m in arts, so all I need is a library card)… But to teach, I need a course and a class.
    I love being able to teach, to use my training and passion. But I also value having sick days, regular employment, a pension, colleagues, professional development, pay rises, a desk, a phone number…

    Posted by Katherine | April 17, 2014, 8:33 am

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