Welcome to CASA’s weekly news round-up in Australia’s higher education, where the semester’s ending, the sun’s setting early, and we’re still debating the proposed reform of our higher education system.
This week the Chief Executive of Universities Australia appeared on Lateline and in the Australian Financial Review; and the Chair, Professor Sandra Harding, was interviewed on Radio National. The strong message is that deregulation is too serious to be rushed; increasingly the sticking point is the proposal to compensate for defunding by raising student debt.
The government produced modelling showing that graduates who jump straight into well-paying positions and repay briskly will barely notice the difference ($). The Greens produced a “how bad is it for you?” online calculator that contradicted this to a startling degree:
— Prof Kerryn Phelps (@drkerrynphelps) June 4, 2014
Whichever modelling is accurate, no one exactly knows how much price signalling will affect student decision-making. The relevance of this to Australia’s casual staff is that differential cost to students for the same or similar qualification is likely to draw much more attention to the value and quality of the student learning experience, at least some of which depends on the working conditions of staff.
This suggests that Universities and other providers looking to temper the impact of a volatile market on their businesses by using just-in-time hiring will have to explain to students why casual teaching is the best way to deliver to students an experience worth going into debt for.
The University of Melbourne promptly announced that it would cut 540 jobs [full-time equivalent professional positions], with a “focus on reducing the total number of casual and fixed term staff where we can”.
What’s happening elsewhere?
The impact of casual academic working conditions on the student experience has been a strategic focus of US adjunct activism for the past few years.
This week, adjunct blogger Dr Priya Shah has a long, thoughtful post on the Office Hours blog on her last day as an adjunct, making the simple point that if students really are to have a transformative learning experience, as so many universities claim, it will be on the basis of the affective labour of the person in the room with them:
Contingency is always already the logic by which our labor is deciphered by the university: we are presumed provisional and denied those resources and opportunities which would allow us to be anything but. However, there is one space in which we are not invisible – the classroom. … All the components an instructor brings to class – the course goals, the readings, the concepts, even the prompts – are living entities that can shift and change directions in the encounter with students’ engagement with class materials, with one another, and with the instructor.
“My Life as an Adjunct” on the Moving In blog also looks at the way in which students judge their university experience primarily by means of the people who front up in the classroom (or online):
No one ever says, “My college dean really prepared me for my career,” or, “My university president really helped me to realize my potential and nurture my skills.” Most of the time, students never meet their dean or the president. Often, students don’t even interact with full-time professors until they are far along in their degree program. Since adjuncts are mainly responsible for instructing the introductory-level classes, we are usually the first interactions the students have with faculty. We make the first impression. We can be the reason a student succeeds and moves forward and keeps paying that precious tuition. We are the lifeblood of the institution.
This problem isn’t contained in the classroom. Academic librarian Maura Smale looks at how library services are affected by casualisation:
At my college adjunct faculty often teach on evenings and weekends, when our full-time library faculty are less available. And though we do offer library workshops in the evenings occasionally, many adjuncts may not be able to attend them (or other faculty development programs) since to do so represents an investment of their own (often uncompensated) time. The work we do with students can also be affected by whether their professors are full-time or adjunct. Difficulties getting in touch can hinder our ability to consult with adjunct faculty about their students’ research assignments before they come for library instruction.
Given the impact of adjunct hiring on all aspects of the student experience, Rebecca Schuman proposes that colleges could be asked to be much more transparent about it, with a big nod towards the Scarlet Letter:
I propose that the “A” (and everyone else’s faculty rank, too) be codified into every course catalog in America. I propose that we do it in a way students and parents can understand, and that we do it with a link to each rank’s salary range. So instead of CHEM 104 STAFF (most of us adjuncts are, after all, Professor Staff), it would read CHEM 104 ADJUNCT, with a link to the pay range. Instead of CHEM 500 DOE, J., it would read CHEM 500 DOE, J. (FULL)—with a link to the pay range, again.
This way, students and parents will realize immediately just how much they are being ripped off: “Wait, if all Marta’s classes are by ADJUNCT, and ADJUNCT makes $11,000 a year … then why is tuition four times that?!?” Maybe they’ll start demanding an “all-adjunct discount.”
Australian universities looking at the impact of fee deregulation and real interest rates on the way students feel about the cost of higher education shouldn’t be too quick to laugh at this.
Bits and pieces
Protesting at the recruitment of a new college President at a salary of $400K (Canadian), 56 regular Faculty at the University of Alberta have applied to the position offering to job share in groups of four “which would double or triple our current wage.” Hourly paid academic staff might like to think about the maths of this.
The UK anti-casualisation Day of Action on June 5 was well-covered on Twitter here.
US adjuncts reacted strongly to the publication of a book on the benefits of casual university work:
— Activist Yoda (@AdjunctYoda) June 3, 2014
and in the comments on this post continued to dispute the appropriateness of the slavery metaphor for adjunct labour, ahead of the publication of Victoria Hay’s book Slave Labor: The New Story of American Higher Education.
Casualisation is now getting wide international coverage in mainstream media and blogs like this one. Is this an effective means of achieving real change? Erin at the Canadian Hook & Eye blog posted on the empathy trap that prevents adjuncts, their allies or their institutions from getting beyond acknowledging the problem of casual work.
My question, then, is this: how do we move beyond the empathy trap in small and big ways? How do we acknowledge what is and get angry about it in ways that will move us into a future that is more generative and generous?
That’s a question for all of us involved in CASA, and we welcome comment. How do we get beyond simply describing the frustrating dependency on insecure work in Australia’s higher education sector, and move to a situation that is realistic for institutions, sustainable for individuals and fair to students, given the rising costs they face?
Meanwhile, good luck if you’re involved in end-of-semester grading while organising work for next semester, and thanks as ever for reading and sharing. If you have ideas for things you’d like covered in the second half of the year, let us know at casualcasa at gmail dot com.