Welcome to CASA’s Sunday review of Australia’s higher education tealeaves. The entire tea set has been thrown into the air by the Federal Budget, and there may or may not be adjustments to the government’s proposed reform agenda as things start to land. Coverage popped up in Canada (“the Australian revolution”) and the UK (“don’t copy the Australians”).
Great to see CASA contributor Robyn May prominently quoted by Andrew Trounson in The Australian this week, under a headline suggesting that fee reform “will see casual rates rise“. If you can’t get past the paywall to the article, here’s what Robyn said, drawing on her substantial research and the experience of her recent visit to look at the situation in the US:
“University funding will be less secure because government money is being cut, leaving them more dependent on uncertain fees and volatile student demand … Many universities will be forced, or will use this as an excuse, to further expand their casual workforce.”
NTEU President Jeannie Rea also expressed concerns in the article about likely increase in precarious employment. On the other hand, cautious optimism from higher education researcher Hamish Coates and UTS Deputy Vice Chancellor Shirley Alexander that universities forced into competition for students would have to pay more attention to teaching and learning quality—although the outcome is pretty much the same: “more diverse academic roles in teaching, beyond the traditional teaching and research academic … more contact with teachers who had had practical experience outside academia, driving a need for new roles such as career mentors.” And finally this from Shirley Alexander:
“I think the most important role of the traditional academic in the future will be in the design of learning, not the delivery,” she said.
This leaves two obvious choices for delivery: online, and casual—or perhaps both together.
The other twinset budget item of concern to casuals—fee deregulation and changes to the interest rate charged on education debt—has attracted serious criticism this week. Students in universities will pay more for their education, and graduates who take longer to start earning full-time will pay more again, thanks to compounding interest at a higher rate. As we mentioned last week, this is the situation that will apply to many people who have been willing to stay in the casual academic queue for increasingly hens teeth full-time positions to open up, conveniently staffing universities while they wait. The incentive to do this in the near future just went through the floor.
Meanwhile, Minister Pyne gave a substantial and detailed speech to the Australian Council for Private Education and Training that addressed benefits to students extensively and did not mention staffing at all.
What’s going on elsewhere?
Robyn mentioned a study by the US Institute for Policy Studies, finding that the institutions with the top 25 highest earning college presidents are also those with rising tuition, increasing admin spend, and the fastest growing proportion of low-wage labour, as reported in the New York Times.
The study makes some disturbing observations about “the top 25.” Student debt is worse than at other schools. Administrative spending is twice the spending on student aid. The percentage of tenured faculty members fell dramatically, while part-time adjunct faculty increased more than twice as fast as the national average for all universities.
The New York Times also reported on the wide economic impact of student debt, confirming that the US experience of raising fees and associated debt levels hasn’t been all windfall.
Are there too many PhDs for available jobs?
The Guardian published an article suggesting that UK universities should stop recruiting to Humanities PhD programs in the absence of meaningful academic employment to follow, describing this as a culture of non-responsibility.
It is essential for universities to cease the irresponsible recruitment of as many PhD students as possible and time for them to start redressing the balance between early career research supply and demand.
This is obviously a complicated proposition for universities—the elephant-in-the-kitchen conflict of interest in budgetary terms.
Macleans in Canada published an article on what happens “when PhDs realise they won’t be professors“, and interviewed prominent alt-ac transition coach Jennifer Polk whose blog From PhD to Life is well worth reading.
Jacqui Shine for Chronicle Vitae suggests however that the turn to alt-ac careers is a simplistic approach to the overproduction of PhDs:
Let’s not mistake the alt-ac option for an answer to academia’s labor woes. To do so is to obscure the problems of the academic labor market. It is to displace those problems onto other labor markets, many of which are equally troubled, with real costs for other workers in those fields. … First off, it’s essential to point out that the academic job market doesn’t exist in some sort of vacuum. In reality, labor markets are intimately connected to one another, and the privatization and casualization that have soured the academic job market are being felt across industries and professions.
Also in Chronicle Vitae, David Perry asked in a widely circulated piece whether the failure of solidarity in higher education stems from academics’ general unwillingness to see what they do as labour at all. (Those who doubt the failure of solidarity might take a look at this week’s Twitter hashtag #tenuresplained.) But those who know that higher education is a labour market are the people trying to get in; in the excellent Revise & Resumbit blog, this article on the lottery of academic hiring has some challenging numbers.
Bits and pieces
The Spokesman-Review reported adjuncts at Gonzaga U, a private university in Washington, taking steps to organise their first faculty union. There is a complicated situation at Columbia College in Chicago that has resulted in full-time staff petitioning to join the part-time staff union, P-fac.
The Democrat & Chronicle in Rochester NY wrote a substantial piece about local adjuncts scraping by, highlighting the “freeway fliers” who work at more than one campus.
Just a reminder to check out the Anti-Casualisation day of action and professional development being held in the UK on June 5. What would Australian casual university workers find most helpful?
Up early …
We had a good turn out for the first international #AdjunctChat on Wednesday morning Sydney time, coordinated by US adjunct organiser Jeffrey Keefer. Warm thanks to friends of CASA out there, and to NTEU colleagues Jen Kwok and Jeannie Rea in particular for getting up early to join casuals, organisers, allies and activists from the US, Canada the UK and Australia. The transcript of the chat is here. It looks as though this will happen again, on specific topics. So you’d like to suggest a topic or run one of the chats, just let us know.
That’s it for this week. We have some new articles coming along, but the budget coverage is our focus at the moment—even though the entire national conversation about educational reform is one of the starkest examples of The Case of the Missing Casuals that we’ve seen since we all hoisted the CASA shingle.
Take care everyone,
@KateMfD and @acahacker