Hello, and welcome to this week’s new subscribers, and springtime in Australia. Here’s our weekly slice of higher education news and opinion relevant to casual work in Australia’s universities.
What’s going on?
The event of the week was the introduction of the Higher Education Reform Bill to the lower house. There were no surprises in the package or the accompanying speech, which maintained the Minister’s strong focus on the benefits of reform to students while the practical means of improving the quality of teaching remain untouched. Magically:
Students will benefit most. They will enjoy improved teaching and learning in innovative and creative courses that compete for their interests. They will be able to choose from a wider range of options and will have better information to help them make decisions about where, how and what to study …
With all this emphasis on quality, the question is when students and their families will start comparison shopping, and what they will find when they do. This may eventually pressure institutions to be clearer about their academic staffing strategies, and to explain exactly why and how casual staffing leads to higher quality of teaching and learning experience, and the best graduate outcomes.
As the reform bill progresses to the next stage of approval, where it’s likely to hit a largish speedbump, there will be continued pressure to negotiate on real interest rates on education debt, and on the challenges facing regional institutions in a deregulated market. Both of these are of interest to casual workers, who are among those most likely to have deferred paying back debt, and are most affected in situations where there are limited employment alternatives.
What’s happening in other places?
Adjuncts in the US and Canada are heading back to work for the start of a new academic year. In the North American systems, adjunct professors develop their own courses and course materials, and the summer is a critical period in which course prep and career development collide with income depletion and the demands of employment insurance schemes that require claimants to be available for work. Kane X. Faucher covered the long hard adjunct summer for the Canadian blog University Affairs:
Changes in the EI system mean that frequent claimants (those who have collected 60 weeks of benefits in the last five years), in order to collect EI again, would have to accept work that pays 80 percent of their previous position for the first six weeks, and pays 70 percent by the seventh week. Seventy percent of many adjunct rates would lead to retail and service work. And even these jobs may not be open to adjuncts if they are deemed overqualified. Complicating this scenario, with a contract in hand to teach in September, an adjunct might not be able to commit to an employer beyond the summer. Should we also mention that adjuncts may be in direct competition with students for summer employment?
The resumption of the academic year has brought the contrast between adjunct and tenured working conditions back into focus (see for example the Washington Post here). At Chronicle Vitae, pseudonymous contributor Alice Umber contrasts her former tenure-track position with her current adjunct working conditions, in terms of the way this has affected the quality of her teaching. This is exactly the kind of practical detail Australian universities will need to think about as budget flexibilisation runs headlong into quality improvement:
No matter how dedicated I am to my teaching or how hard I work, I simply can’t do for students as an adjunct what I could when I was an integral part of a department and a university.
For starters, I teach in a vacuum. While I’m assigned classes and (sometimes) given course outlines or sample syllabi, after that initial exchange of information, I teach my courses in almost total isolation. In my previous job, one of the first things I learned was how the sequence of required courses in the major fit together to create a foundation, continuity, and a discipline-specific education for our majors. That I ever possessed such knowledge now seems like such a luxury to me.
These days I focus on the courses I teach without any sense of how they relate to the overall curriculum, the hoped-for outcomes for majors, or the sequence of skills or knowledge being developed. The unfortunate side effect of this is that I’m less aware of any prior training and experience students might bring to my classes. And the less I know about them, the less able I’m able to tailor my classes to their needs.
Also pseudonymous guest blogger Lady Spitfire wrote about her annual “welcome back” departmental dinner, where she bailed up the Dean to ask why adjuncts had not been invited:
When the crowds parted, I stated my name and shook her hand. We made small talk about the weather and traffic, and then I asked her, “Why aren’t adjuncts invited to this dinner?” She took a sip of wine and said, “Well, it’s for full-time faculty only.” I said, “I see. Did you know that we have 30 full-timers in our department and 37 adjuncts? I guess that makes them the true faculty majority then, huh?”
Against this impressive competition, the prize for dismissal of adjunct working conditions went this week to a provocative article by Catherine Stukel in The Chronicle: “Is That Whining Adjunct Someone We Want Teaching Our Young?” No, really. Many responses were written, as you’d expect:
- I am not alone in wanting the respect I deserve. That’s not whining. (Katie Krcmarik, Flint, MI)
- My position because 6 separate contracts for 40% less pay. (Marc Ouellette, Ontario, Canada)
- The Big Boy Boxer Shorts (Andrew Robinson, Ottawa, Canada)
- Grading Stukel (Nathaniel Oliver)
- Offensive Letter Justifies Oppressive System that Hurts both Faculty and Students (Marc Bousquet)
- A fine hoax of attitudes towards adjuncts in the Chronicle (Bryan Alexander)
It’s a traffic win for the Chronicle, but not necessarily for those who have been drawn into this painful dispute. Given that Stukel has also addressed herself to the hiring of people with mental illness, Katie Guest Pryal’s latest column for Chronicle Vitae is a substantial and evidence-based discussion of the real challenges this raises.
PBS Newshour continued its coverage of higher education staffing with an article by long term adjunct and research scientist Denise Cummins raising the question of whether tenure is the solution or the problem, and looking at the sharply rising pay scales for university Presidents. Denise Cummins illustrates the disproportionate impact of both tenure itself and family related periods of adjuncting on women academics—also the focus of this week’s Adjunct Action conversation with Sarah Kendzior.
This week’s recommended long read: Shonda Goward and Katie Anderson Howell discuss pay and working conditions, connecting adjunct work to what’s happening across campuses (except, of course, in the President’s office):
The professoriate is not the only aspect of the academy that has become adjunctified. Facilities and food services have long been privatized on many campuses, with the result being lower wages. In addition, lower levels of administration are on their way to adjunctification as well. Plenty of professional positions, such as advising, are now part-time, which means that students have less of an opportunity to meet with one person consistently to help them track their degrees.
If you’re reading this on Sunday you have one last chance to pop in to the NTEU survey on online teaching here, and while you’re at it CASA writer Katie Freund is also looking for input on this topic, for a forthcoming presentation.
Have a good week everyone, and as ever, if there’s something you’d like us to cover and you’d like to write a post for us, we’re at casualcasa at gmail.
@acahacker and @katemfd