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Stepping out

While we’re all waiting to see what happens with the proposed reform of Australian higher education, we’re really delighted to welcome a new writer to CASA, with serious long-term sector experience in research, speechwriting, administration and professional consultancy. Neville Buch has a Ph.D. from the University of Queensland in the fields of Australian religious history and Queensland social history. Prior to his current consultancy work, he worked as the Research Officer for the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne, and at Griffith University. He is currently on the Management Committee of the Professional Historians Association (Queensland) and serves as its e-bulletin editor. In 2014, he will have published three books – two school and community histories, and a Catholic institutional history.

As his story reveals, the challenges facing those who are looking for post-PhD professional careers when there are “no academic jobs to be had” aren’t new. Nor are these challenges tidily contained within professional boundaries. But there are opportunities for change, and alternatives to long-term underemployment. So we’d really welcome your thoughts on these ideas for stepping out.  – @katemfd and @acahacker

It is 1994; a group of eight friends among history doctoral candidates casually worked, and graduated in the coming months, at the University of Queensland and Griffith University. Although the boundaries of friendship extended among other colleagues, and the familiarity varied, it was a small group that would meet up socially for a while, and these friends would frequently cross paths, through email, conferences, and home-based dinners, keeping the connections over the last two decades. Of the eight, four were women, and the age range, in the beginning, was from late twenties to early fifties. Most were in their thirties. The career progression or haphazard series of occupations among the eight is fascinating in its luck and achievement.

As a higher education casual workers in 1994, we each had a vision of what life would singularly be like from the base of the work we was doing. Our hope was that the academic research, writing, and teaching we were engaged in would prove to be the foundation of a solid career. Two friends (women) would find something of that ‘solid’ career as permanent academic staff members, but not until after drifting over a decade between casual appointments, several outside academia. In the end, it was surprising where they ended up within the university world. One became a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at a small university, and the other became an Associate Professor in a different discipline. A third friend (a woman) kept regular work as a casual tutor and lecturer until the university that many know as the university for the ‘real world’ decided to wind back the whole humanities area to the one academic job, and she dipped out.

The blokes in the group were less fortunate in terms of an academic career. One friend did have regular lecturing work for about a decade until he suffered from severe depression and committed suicide. Needless to say, it shook our world. I think continually about my friend whenever any of these issues of employment and academic qualification come up; more so, because out of the eight he was the one who established the best reputation in the field. There was a great sense of loss for us, as there was when we lost the oldest member of our group. He was the most successful in the immediate days after graduation. He flew into consultancy work right away. In a short time he had made a reputation as a local educational historian and then suddenly he was gone; dying of lung cancer. Another male friend had worked for most of the time as a local government heritage advisor, and had only recently resigned from that position to take up consultancy work. One factor was statistically unusual. Every member of that group ended up with either experiencing a serious illness themselves, or supporting a partner or another close family member with a serious illness, such that it affected the scope of career options in some way. My mate, the local government heritage advisor, suffered a stroke.

What marked this small group out, in the beginning, was that we attempted to form our own professional association of historians when we first realised that there were no academic jobs to be had. We were ex-casual early academics who didn’t survive the economic crush in the humanities, and turned for our paid work towards groups outside of higher education. From the institutional perspective, we were expected to find work out in the private sector when public funding was halved (or more) in what was allocated to the humanities schools. It is a long and complex story of how different history professional associations developed in the Australian states, but the upshot of it is that there is now a national body, Professional Historians Australia, interlinking the various state associations, with the roles in accreditation and support of scholarly colleagues. The majority of our associations are made up of members working outside of the universities, but there are also key members who work between the two arenas. Although rare, there is the occasional marriage of university academic work and professional history projects, such as heritage consultancy.

The challenge that faces independent scholars is that there is not the structure to manage and administer the large collaborate projects. Scholars in consultancy work end up doing what HODs and Deans do in universities. It is a common complaint, both inside and outside of the academy, that scholars wish that their time would be released more in the research and writing rather than in project management work. For the freelance consultants, however, the missing element is the structural support of the supposed ‘community engagement’ in the universities. Plainly, the reality of who actually does the work of, say, community history, makes the universities’ rhetoric on ‘community engagement’ a mockery. The institutions fudge their record in this objective by counting tenuous links that they have with casual workers or even much forgotten alumni. But it could be different and to mutual benefit.

Without compromising the diverging agendas for the institutions, higher degree postgraduates, early career academics, and professional consultants, more effective alliances could be formally built which are not past meagre explorations. What has to change is for institutions, disciplinary-focused and scholarly industry organisations (e.g. Professional Historians Australia), and scholars themselves, to identify specific opportunities for collaborations in the community or in the wider private market. For example, currently a team of professionals, not only historians, but also surveyors, archaeologists, web and digital technicians, are working in the Mapping Brisbane History Project, reviving the old historical geography sub-discipline via new digital platforms. It was not the universities that provided the initial pilot funding for the project but the Brisbane City Council. This is community engagement for the real world, not the public relations rhetoric of the universities. And yet it does not have to be this way.

There are opportunities here for the institutions in meaningful internships. There are opportunities for casual higher education workers to forge cross-discipline projects for themselves. There are opportunities for professional consultants spending less time chasing funding and use the time to take leadership in community projects. There are opportunities for private businesses and investors to keep the humanities alive for the real world. There are opportunities for governments, at all levels, to bring parties together so that humanities graduates can have paid work.

For all of us, it is just a matter of stepping out.

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

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