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Is academia a meritocracy?

One of the reasons why casualisation is so hard to address is that concrete suggestions for change are often contentious. Another new writer joins the CASA community this week, looking at controversy around the creation of full-time positions targeted at early career academics.

Every three or four years, local branches of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) negotiate with university managements around Australia to determine working conditions for academics. In this latest round, one of the NTEU’s flagship claims was for secure positions to replace 20% of the academic work currently performed by casual academic staff, which has ballooned to well beyond the already high rate of casual employment in Australia more generally.

However, at most campuses even this fairly modest reduction in casual academic employment looks unlikely to be achieved. This post considers just one issue the NTEU’s claim has raised: do we need special employment positions targeted at early career academics, favouring those already employed at Australian universities? Shouldn’t casual academics be able to compete for academic positions with everyone else? If academia is indeed a meritocracy, then all that is required to improve the situation for casual academics is more permanent positions, which the most able candidates will then fill.

There are two problems with this meritocratic approach to addressing the problem of casual employment.

First, since the academic labour market is global, new permanent jobs may not be filled by any of the approximately 60,000 academics currently employed as casuals. Indeed, given the dire state of the academic labour market, new entry level positions may not be filled by early career academics at all, but by senior researchers with established track records displaced from other tertiary education systems. This may boost Australia’s research ranking, but it does not provide job opportunities or job security to academics whose work is currently sustaining our system; or, for that matter, to our own PhD graduates.

Second, although any judgement of academic merit is contentious, it is especially difficult when appointing early career academics. Aspiring academics have had little opportunity to establish a research profile, and so genuine entry-level positions are allocated on potential rather than performance. But academic potential lacks a reliable metric. Most notably, there is no dependable method of comparing the quality of PhDs (e.g. a standard international mark).

This leaves a range of inadequate proxies, such as the ranking or reputation of the university a candidate attended. But the university candidates attend might reflect their wealth as much as their capabilities, and so this is not a decent measure of merit.

An alternative is to appoint someone who the selection committee already knows. This model risks reproducing the ‘fiefdom’ model of casual academic employment, where teaching work goes to whoever knows the unit co-ordinator best. It also risks stifling dissent by favouring compliant casuals over those who challenge the status quo.

If PhDs or connections are unreliable proxies for potential, then selection committees need to work harder to appoint the right person to early career positions. This includes actually reading the work that candidates have produced.

But giving up faith in an academic meritocracy also justifies more targeted appointment criteria. One controversial feature of the NTEU’s campaign to create career opportunities for casual academics was to try to limit some new early career positions to people who have worked in Australian universities – or in some cases in particular institutions – on a casual or fixed-term basis.

These proposals were criticised by some as anti-meritocratic. Yet if the system is not meritocratic to begin with, then this objection is less compelling.

Conversely, giving up the meritocratic world-view strengthens the case for using industrial criteria instead. That is, it strengthens the case for redressing inequities of insecure employment by targeting new secure positions to people who are already in insecure employment (on a competitive basis), and whose often unrecognised commitment and unpaid hours keep our universities running.

With 60,000 casual staff from all over the world employed as casual academics in Australia, there is no shortage of candidates who merit better working conditions, and who have the potential for a successful academic career if given the opportunity.

One aim of the innovative new positions for early career academics that the NTEU put on the table in the last bargaining round was to provide just these opportunities. These positions included teaching-focused roles with a minimum research load, and fixed-term early career fellowships to provide aspiring academics with paid time to develop an internationally competitive research profile.

In the last bargaining round, not enough academics were willing to take action to support the NTEU’s claim for more early career positions. Less confidence in the meritocracy of existing academic employment – and more confidence in the capabilities of our precariously employed academic colleagues – might reduce this complacency next time around.

– Dale Tweedie is currently a Research Fellow at Macquarie University, and was a recipient of one of the 2 year Early Career Fellowship the NTEU achieved in the last bargaining round. He also researches on precarious work in Australia and abroad.



4 thoughts on “Is academia a meritocracy?

  1. For me, the question became: Should the meritocracy be based on subject matter expertise or the craft of teaching. I blogged about this this week in “Are Adjuncts Certifiable?” at http://adjunctularnoodling.blogspot.com

    I’d be interested in your thoughts.


    Posted by Uncle Noodle | June 25, 2014, 3:02 am
  2. I think this is the right question. Universities in Australia are increasingly recruiting on the basis of research backlist, even for entry level positions, with their fingers crossed that teaching competence comes with the package. And then we see a bit more investment in teacher development after recruitment.

    But realistically, an early career researcher recruited to a salaried position that involves both research and teaching will immediately be under immense pressure to act on their 3-5 year research plan, and to have as one of their key goals winning the grants that will see them bought out of teaching. Under these circumstances, merit = research merit, no doubt about it. So we need to be really candid about what this means for people trying to get into the profession with a teaching merit case. Realistically, so long as universities can get those people at hourly rates, the incentive to pay them salaries, benefits and everything is weak.

    This means thinking hard, and talking together, about the real long-term cost of allowing meritorious scholarly teachers to languish in hourly-paid work. Deregulation may expose some consequences of short-term thinking, as student satisfaction becomes more of a driver of choice, but universities won’t be in a rush to publicise any problems that they have.

    Thanks for sharing the link Don.

    Posted by Kate | June 25, 2014, 11:59 am


  1. Pingback: RT @KateMfD: At CASA today: is meritocracy an excu… « Silence and Voice - June 24, 2014

  2. Pingback: Session’s over (Part 2: Improving Our Lot) | CASA - July 20, 2014

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