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CASA weekly news 09/14

Much stirring of the Federal budget tea leaves this week, relevant to university casuals for obvious reasons.

On Monday Minister for Education Christopher Pyne spoke to The Policy Exchange in London on “Freeing Universities to Compete in a Global Education Market“, mentioning cricket a bit, but in higher education terms showing more interest in the US model (uncannily in the same week that The Guardian advised not following the Australian funding model).

US community college administrator Matt Reed responded critically for Inside Higher Ed on whether competition really has strengthened the US system:

When you “set institutions free,” their choices may or may not make sense from a systemic level.  They will choose to do what makes sense for them individually.  In the American case, that has led to a difficult combination of cost increases and economic polarization, with some weird imbalances between the parts of the system.  … Each segment of the system is acting according to its own imperatives; the fact that the imperatives conflict is not any one institution’s problem.

The fat shadow of the Commission of Audit report fell across the rest of the week. For international readers, this is the outcome of a national search for savings across government programs, so its 86 recommendations got quite a bit of media attention. The higher education recommendations are in Phase One of the report here. Long term part-time university staff should keep an eye on the proposal that education debt recovery cut in at the minimum wage of $32, 354 than the currently higher rate of $51,309.

The Regional Universities Network response is here. Universities Australia response is here.

Meanwhile, Caroline McMillen, VC of Newcastle University, counsels against fee deregulation here. Peter Lee, VC of Southern Cross University, argues for higher education as public good here, and Stephen Parker, VC of the University of Canberra, puts it bluntly: “Letting the market rip will suck the soul out of universities.”

The quality problem

The new Higher Education Standards Framework consultation draft was released rather more quietly, and is a key part of the reform strategy. How should the quality of an Australian higher education provider be reflected in its teaching staff? The standards typically cover qualification, suitability and accessibility, and until now have also included as a quality variable the staffing mix between sessional and full-time staff (see section 4 Teaching and Learning Are Of High Quality).

The proposed Framework falls silent on this mix. While it sticks to the view that teaching in higher education should require a completed qualification at least one step higher than those being taught, there’s a back door left wide open in this footnote to section 3.2 Course Delivery:

Some parts of a course or unit of study may be taught by teachers who do not meet Standard 3.2.2 in its entirety where necessary to meet a particular educational need or as part of career development in teaching (such as practitioners or higher degree students, who do not hold a qualification higher than awarded for the course of study), provided their teaching is supervised by staff who meet Standard 3.2.2.

In other words, the Framework shifts the emphasis away from how much higher education is casualised, to how casual staff are supervised, and uses the usual covering explanation: that professional adjuncts who have something to offer or PhD students who need career development shouldn’t be held back from working insecurely, without leave entitlements and with reduced superannuation, if that’s how they roll.

What’s going on elsewhere?

This two-step minimisation of the impact of casualisation because it’s either a CV boost for graduate students or a professional sideline isn’t just being used in Australia. A report into zero hours contracts in Scottish higher education quotes the UCEA (Universities and Colleges Employers Association) making the same point:

Unpredictable and changing patterns of student demand, the need for specialist subject input and the practical need to provide cover for absences or occasional peak activities all call for some flexibility in staffing … In many cases, those who do this work are themselves students, while many others have a primary source of employment outside of higher education.

COCAL (The Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor) is running its biennial international conference August 4-6 in New York, with some attention to the potential for international alliances.

A widely shared article in The Atlantic on “The Adjunct Revolt” continued the strong mainstream media coverage of the increasing unionisation and industrial protest in US higher education. Here’s another reason to look twice before copying the US:

The adjunct crisis also restricts the research output of American universities. For adjuncts scrambling between multiple short-term, poorly paid teaching jobs, producing scholarship is a luxury they cannot afford. “We have lost an entire generation of scholarship because of this,” Debra Leigh Scott, an adjunct activist and documentary filmmaker, told [Elizabeth Segran]. “Adjunct contracts not only drive professors into poverty, it makes it next to impossible for them to do the kind of scholarship they have trained an average of ten years to do.”

Truth Out put out a hefty article by Max Haiven on “The Ivory Cage and the Ghosts of Academe“, noting rising coverage of causalisation issues “in anglophone universities on both sides of the Atlantic”, which we don’t think is an intentional snub to those of us on the far side of the Pacific.

Also getting passed around this week, “Academics Anonymous: Why I’m Leaving Academia” in The Guardian , the story of an early career postdoc giving up on the hope of secure academic employment.

In “Ten Steps to Becoming an Adjunct Ally” Miranda Merklein at the Fugitive Faculty blog spelled out clearly how university staff on precarious contracts are affected by actions and advice from their tenured colleagues.

The Adjunct Project posted a reader question about pregnancy and semester-long casual contracts.

“So very much nope”

The Unarmed Education Revolutionary blog has been commenting on the impact on adjunct hours of the Obama Affordable Care Act, which has seen many adjuncts lose teaching hours so as not to qualify for healthcare, displacing many to teach across more than one institution. Having first lost hours, fifteen adjuncts then found themselves replaced by even cheaper academic labour: teaching assistants. And in the final elegant move, those adjuncts were asked to make sure copies of the teaching materials they had developed themselves were left for those who would replace them.

Nope.  So very much nope that if nope had a tonnage measurement this would break the scales of Nope-i-ness. … This was an absurd and highly offensive request.  A parting blow with just over a week to go.  A reminder that we are not wanted, just our products that are beneficial to others. If that isn’t greasing the wheels of the corporate education machine with our own bodies and minds, I don’t know what is.

Two years ago this story might not have gone further than the small group of adjuncts directly affected, and their sympathetic colleagues. Now we’re reading about it in Australia — and that’s a sign to anyone recommending that we copy the cost-efficiencies of the US college system that the creation of a highly skilled and networked contingent academic labour force is in the Careful What You Wish For category.

 

This is a really tiring time of year in Australian universities, so thanks to everyone for making CASA a place of welcome to this week’s new subscribers and to those who are writing new articles for us. As ever, if you want to see something covered or changed, please do email: casualcasa at gmail dot com. And if you’re on Twitter, watch out for #AdjunctChat, as there’s been interest this week in finding a good time for a live chat between the US, Australia and the UK.

@KateMfd @acahacker

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

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