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“The sleeper in the room”: casualisation and the 2014 OLT conference

A warm welcome to another new CASA contributor this week, with a report on the OLT 2014 Conference that many of us followed on Twitter.  There’s an accompanying Storify of the exchanges between those who were there, and those watching from home. We really welcome comment, especially from anyone who was there. 

This past week, I attended the conference of the Office of Teaching and Learning, “Learning and Teaching for Our Times: Higher Education in the Digital Age”. As an ECR in a professional teaching support role, I felt quite out of place: most of the other attendees were senior academics, managers, directors, and DVCs from across Australia. I doubt many casual teachers were present in the room. (If any casual colleagues did attend I would love to hear from you!)

The event was focused on the “big picture” issues, particularly the deregulation of higher education, and learning analytics. There was not a single session or paper specifically on casualisation, which many of us would agree is the most pressing teaching and learning issue facing universities. I would like to acknowledge, though, the poster from the BLASST project and the transnational teaching teams project which explicitly supported sessional staff (as mentioned by Kate in a previous CASA post).

But overall, it was the way sessionals were not discussed that says everything about how invisible they are.

Take the keynote, for example. Andrew Norton from the Grattan Institute discussed the effects of deregulation, with slide after slide on how more expensive uni fees would impact teaching (not much), how research output relates to quality of teaching (doesn’t help), and how teaching qualifications impact student satisfaction (no correlation). There was an offhand remark about “some tutors without degrees”, which both tacitly acknowledged the casualisation issue and ignored that many casual academics are now PhD qualified and highly experienced.

On Twitter, a conversation was brewing under the hashtag #olt2014 on how casual teachers fit into this “big picture”. I took the bait and asked during the question period about how casualisation related to his comments on teaching quality and qualifications. As 60 percent (or more) teaching is done by casuals who don’t have access to professional development, is this is a factor in why there is no measurable difference on student satisfaction by teachers with teaching qualifications?

His response: “I have no data about that.”

I sat down.

A later panel session included a presentation on “The academic workforce 2020” by Professor Richard James from the University of Melbourne. He discussed casualisation more explicitly, and talked about how the uni workforce would become more and more stratified if it continued along its current path. His suggestion was to create a Higher Education Academy model, similar to that in the UK, designed to support all educators at universities, starting with the most marginalised. By mentoring and supporting casual teachers (which he called “para-professionals”), universities could provide better access to pathways to career advancement.

Several presentations followed on teaching standards, recognising teaching and rewarding good practice, and so on—none of which mentioned how casual teachers fit in to these frameworks. The real awkwardness came during the question period. A member of the NTEU stood and said, “I was sent to ask the unpopular questions” about casualisation. Panel member Belinda Probert replied:

The panel only vaguely addressed the question, but essentially said the same things as Andrew Norton said to me, “We don’t know.”

Then another person stood and repeated the question, indicating their answer had not been satisfactory. The response from the panel was, “We’ve already discussed that. Please sit down.”

It was such an awkward and painful moment, noticed by all the 300 people in the room, if their murmuring was any indication. That moment, the “please sit down” moment, says it all, really. It’s the sleeper in the room, but we aren’t going to talk about it. No one seems to know what to do, so it’s best to ignore it and hope it goes away.

Throughout the rest of the conference, casuals were invisible in all the conversations about teaching and learning, academic staffing, learning technologies, and the future of higher education in Australia (with the two exceptions mentioned above). All the plans and projects to improve student engagement and teaching quality ignored the teaching that is done by sessionals; none of these projects will be truly effective until casualisation is addressed.

The discussion on Twitter was lively and engaged in the topic, however: many of the attendees, even if they weren’t speaking, were asking the right questions. I’ve collected many of the Tweets about casuals into a Storify for reference.

But what can we do about it? I have a few thoughts, ranging from easy to much more difficult to implement:

  • Begin addressing the lack of knowledge of the issue by collecting and promoting all the existing research on casualisation in higher ed. That way, when people respond with “I’m not sure”, we have evidence we can provide to address the issues.
  • Highlight and support the good practice work already being done on casualisation and supporting casual teachers, such as the BLASST project.
  • Include Twitter feeds on the presentation screens in conference discussions. Casuals and their allies are active on Twitter; this is where the best conversations happen and casualisation is discussed openly and productively.
  • Submit more papers and panel topics on casualisation to conferences like this, so that we can be included in the conference program and share with those who might not want to bring it up.
  • Arrange a subsidy fund (possibly crowd-funded?) so that more casual university workers and casual allies can attend events like this, and continue to ask the “unpopular questions”.
  • Stage a parallel session or conference which is directly focused on casualisation and contingent academics, similar to the MLA subconference. Host in the lobby of the conference centre!
  • Organise a free conference on casual teaching, either held simultaneously in different locations (and engaging through video conferencing) or hosted online to allow as many to attend as possible without paying for travel fees.

I would love your thoughts on these suggestions, or to hear your perspective if you also attended this event or participated in the discussion on Twitter.


About Katie Freund

Educational designer, researcher and teacher in digital communication, education technology, and media studies. Currently at the Australian National University.


9 thoughts on ““The sleeper in the room”: casualisation and the 2014 OLT conference

  1. Great post, Katie. I thought one of the biggest clangers for casuals was Rick Cummings’ criteria for quality teaching, which included professional development for levels A to E. No mention of professional development for those who do the majority of the teaching! I don’t think my tweet on that made it into the Storify. I really like your suggestions for action, and would love to play a part. I found the #olt2014 Twitter discussion more stimulating – and critically engaged – than the conference itself.

    Posted by Agnes Bosanquet | June 20, 2014, 10:06 pm
  2. Reblogged this on National Mobilization For Equity and commented:
    Casualization of academic labor is global…so is the habit of denial from above that reinforces sessional invisibility. Our coalition is national but the problem is global

    Posted by nationalmobilization | June 21, 2014, 12:22 am
  3. Thank you for this very informative post, and thanks to you and others for asking those ‘difficult’ questions on casualisation. The tag ‘para-professionals’ says it all in terms of how many academics—especially senior academics—think of us, para being something that is like or adjacent to, but not actually the same. Sorry, Prof James, we are every bit the professional that any other academic is. There is still the idea that casuals are trainees in waiting for their full-time job, or are newly graduated or still students. They were in the past, but the majority of casuals I work with now have their PhDs, some attained many years ago, as you note. Many of us are having to resign ourselves to the idea that there will not be a full-time job available: almost all continuing jobs advertised go to people who already have a full-time job, because they are the ones who have had research time to write long lists of papers and to apply for grants (which always seem to be the main criteria for selection). So, your campaign for casuals to be acknowledged and discussed at conferences and the like on university futures is very welcome.

    Posted by Caron Eastgate Dann | June 21, 2014, 7:20 am


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