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What’s in a name?

Lovely to welcome Robyn May back to CASA this week. Robyn’s going to be speaking in Melbourne at an NTEU seminar on national and global trends in academic casualisation, on Thursday evening. For those who can’t make a Melbourne event, it’ll be live tweeted to the #auscasuals hashtag from 7pm AEST, and there should be a chance to ask questions this way, wherever you are.  Robyn will be in conversation with NTEU President Jeannie Rea.

Sessional or casual? In this post I want to make a case for reclaiming the word “casual” when referring to staff who undertake teaching on an hourly rate, semeseter after semester basis in our universities, and in doing so note my concern with the use of the term “sessional”, which I think tries to imply a status or level of security that simply cannot and does not exist with a casual contract.

Academic staff can be hired in one of three ways in Australia: as continuing (it’s not quite the same as tenured but means that dismissal can only occur as a result of redundancy or misconduct); fixed-term (employment for a stated period of time with similar benefits to continuing staff during that time – although depending on contract length it includes 9.25% superannuation not 17%); or casual.  The employment category of casual is distinctly Australian, and is essentially a relic of our system of conciliation and arbitration which, through the creation of awards, sought to find a way of categorising ‘residual’ workers whose conditions of work did not fit what was then the standard (male) model.  Fast forward 40 or so years and the casual contract is, today,  just about the standard model. It has provided a level of “flexibility” to which employers, particularly those in our sector, are now deeply addicted.

Casuals have no entitlement to the benefits normally associated with employment, such as sick and annual leave, and instead are compensated for this with a loading, usually in the order of 25%. Most people would think of a casual worker as someone in a shop or cafe who gets this loading on the hours that they are present at work.  However for the casual academic this is not the case. The hourly rate also encompasses a whole bundle of work that is pretty much invisible: class preparation, dealing with student emails, university administration and so on. The work can often be unbounded, limited only by the casual academic themselves and often expanded by their own work ethic.

Whilst a casual teaching contract will often make reference to encompassing work over a semester (hence the elevation to “sessional”), and some universities actually offer a set all-in rate for the semester’s teaching work, the casual contract at its heart is an hourly engagement. Yes, a casual academic can be fired with an hour’s notice and can indeed leave with an hour’s notice. It doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen—and of course the consequences when it does happen are devastating.

So while an hourly rate may be an appropriate way to pay someone for providing a one-off lecture or tute, or possibly a short one-off course, the idea that this mode of employment is appropriate for the majority of academic staff, and for the provision of much of the undergraduate teaching, is hugely problematic.  It is the university sector’s dirty secret and it needs to be aired, particularly now if students are going to be asked to pay a whole lot more for their university education.

Let’s please call it what it is: casual work. And then maybe we can discuss whether such a casual commitment is the best way to engage those who provide most of the undergraduate teaching in our universities.


About Robyn

My PhD research investigates the casualization of academic work in Australia. The research brings together a long-standing interest in industrial relations and insecure work, the experience of working in the university sector as a researcher and also for the NTEU.


2 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Thanx Robyn.

    I have read a few old decisions or statements of reasons of Commissioners who struggled with higher education’s category of ‘casual’ employment, referring to such staff as ‘part time’ employees, which is even less appropriate.

    Posted by Gavin Moodie | July 3, 2014, 12:56 am
  2. Hi Gavin, and thanks Robyn
    I’ve gone along with “sessional” in the past and this post really helped me understand my misgivings about it. But the key thing here in relation to other kinds of casual work is the point you make about the casual loading: it can be used to self-fund sickness and other kinds of leave, or it can be used to bundle other kinds of work, but not both. And that’s where things are really getting worse, as more and more expectations are loaded onto the nominal loading.
    It would be great to see the NTEU campaigning for a real hourly rate to be transparently offered, that could be openly compared across institutions.

    Posted by Kate | July 4, 2014, 4:56 pm

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