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CASA weekly news 26/14

Here’s this week’s Australian roundup of news and opinion on the casualisation of higher education. The higher education reform Bill has been sent to the Senate Education and Employment Legislation Committee, with a due date of October 28, so there’s plenty more time for speculation and debate, and an opportunity to think about how education reform interacts with employment in the sector itself. But as you might expect, the week’s continued analysis of the likely outcome of the proposed reforms keeps quiet on the sustainability of the current staffing model.

So it’s good to see mainstream media coverage of the reality of Australian university staffing. Tony Featherstone in the Sydney Morning Herald connects the casualisation of academic employment to the ways in which a range of white collar careers are being restructured:

Take university lecturing as an example. Once among the most revered white-collar jobs, it has become a production line, at least for sessional or part-time academics at some universities who are paid a pittance, despite the great responsibility of teaching young minds.

A sessional academic with two masters degrees might earn $320 for a two-hour lecture. That sounds great, until you realise the academic spent a day preparing the lecture. Do the math and they might be on $30 an hour – less than the local barista earns on a public holiday, or the water-truck driver at a remote mine.

Then they’re paid $40 an hour to mark assignments, a tedious, manual job if ever there was one, and less than the self-employed barber earns for doing a few haircuts in an hour. If the academic puts in a chuck of ‘discretionary’ time to do a good job on marking, or give students extra feedback, he or she could end up earning a bit more than the minimum wage.

What’s happening elsewhere?

Continuing this theme, today CBC radio broadcast a documentary on exploitation in the ivory tower, with this introduction:

Universities in Canada – which threw open their doors this week to almost a million undergraduates – are propped up by a huge army of part-time teachers, who are highly qualified and poorly paid. They have no job security or pension, and little hope of ever getting a full-time position. They go by many titles: sessional lecturers, contract academic staff, adjunct faculty. Today more than half of Canadian undergraduates are taught by these very precarious workers, not by the big-name  – and well-paid – academics that universities like to feature in their recruiting ads. The institutions simply couldn’t function without them.

US blogger The Unarmed Education Mercenary, source of the fabulous Adjunct Consultation Statement that was circulated last week, also raised the question of not showing up:

We have the majority.  If we all walk out, we bring the juggernaut of corporate higher education to a halt.  Think about the form above.  How much work have you done and for how many years that has been basically volunteer labor for the academy?  Isn’t it time we were properly compensated?

Miranda Merklein is one of those not showing up to adjunct as the new academic year begins, and her story of transition from contract worker to union activist with health care benefits is really worth reading in full.

I loved teaching. I loved what I taught. My students and I learned a lot from each other. I finished my terminal degree, went on a tenure-track job search, and got decimated in the destruction of higher ed. The human-made disaster college administrators orchestrated, taking specific advantage of the Great Recession to cement the adjunctification of the faculty has been exacting and intentional. … And on this Labor Day, like so many other former adjunct professors, I am marking my exit from the classroom, a part of the higher ed diaspora.

Why are adjuncts leaving this job they love so much? Here’s part of the answer, from Miranda Merklein again:

I was more trapped than ever. Having given up the tenure track job search a few years earlier, I wasn’t able to get any other jobs in the last 11 months of a broader job search. As the one with the formal education in my relationship, I have been the one to supposedly have more earning power. However when my partner and I both had to go on unemployment last winter we found out his weekly income as a line cook in a college cafeteria brought in a higher unemployment check than my weekly income as an adjunct professor.

Over at the excellent Hybrid Pedagogy blog, that has given many adjunct writers a wider platform and consistently linked questions of hiring to the principles of teaching, Tiffany Kraft has another good piece on the interaction between employment and welfare for adjunct academics. From PhD to Poverty puts it bluntly:

It baffles me why, in a higher ed system that holds political but not ideological power over its workers, we don’t object to our labor conditions en masse. There are severalstrongvoices in the argument for adjunct labor reform, but the more widespread false consciousness that accepts, complies with, justifies, and administers exploited labor is shameful. It would be different if higher ed wasn’t posing as something it isn’t, namely: an institution founded on key phrases such as Learning and DiscoveryAccess to LearningA Climate of Mutual RespectOpenness and Reflection and Community and Civic Engagement. These core values are at odds with the toxic reality.

Australian policy makers overlook the casualisation problem because it’s not always clearly attached to the question of research investment and outcomes, particularly in relation to PhD training. This week’s read for the policy minded: a substantial report on employment outcomes from the Arts & Humanities Researrch Council in the UK, Support for Arts and Humanities Researchers post-PhD. Not all questions are asked, but there’s some data on the emergence of zero hours contracts, and some suggestions for further research on the impact of fractional, portfolio and very insecure employment in terms of both gender and disability.

A question for CASA readers:

The potential for a crisis in casual staffing shines a light on the other compensations that universities can offer if they choose, including professional development. So this week we’re really interested in hearing from anyone who has positive—or negative—experiences of the management of professional development and career support. Is the professional development you’ve received effective in relation to your overall career goals? What would work for you? Please comment below, or send us a message: casualcasa at gmail.

Have a good week everyone, and thanks for sharing this around while the structure and viability of higher education is getting political attention. Do let us know if there’s anything you’d like us to look into.

@acahacker and @katemfd




About Kate Bowles

Now blogging over at musicfordeckchairs.com


7 thoughts on “CASA weekly news 26/14

  1. I’m highlighting smh’s “blues” and adding Tony Featherstone to my feed reader. I’ve been collecting UK and US articles from non-academic sources on the gig economy. This comment in particular relates to thorny problems built into adjunct wage and hours issues:

    ❝It’s potentially an awful space. Unlike traditional blue-collar workers, these new workers won’t be able to clock off after an eight-hour shift and leave work behind for the day. Their employers will expect white-collar hours and professionalism, for blue-collar pay.❞

    Bryan Alexander is worth watching for higher education and academic labor posts. http://bryanalexander.org/

    The CBC documentary was impressive. In the US, NPR covers adjuncts better than the commercial radio stations but never in as much depth.

    On Fugitive Faculty, the guest posting adjunct turned union organizer, Jessica Lawless, Miranda’s former colleague at Santa Fe Community College, now working SEIU in the Bay Area.


    Posted by VanessaVaile | September 7, 2014, 11:14 pm
  2. Make no mistake about it, if Australia goes the casualisation route you will create a permanent underclass of extremely precarious workers. The regular faculty will not be your allies because they will benefit by having the underclass doing some of their teaching. It will be in their interests to keep the underdog down. Any sense of guilt will be assuaged by blaming “the system”, rather than taking personal responsibility. For University administrators, obsessed with cost cutting, casualisation is a drug. Once they taste it, they are hooked. It has massive advantages for the institution and absolutely none for the people doing the job. Don’t allow this to happen.

    If part time positions are created, they should have the same salary and benefits (pro rated) as a full time job. There should be a clear definition of the number of hours worked. Do not use the “contact hour” system. The part-timer puts in far more time out of the classroom. Total hours worked to deliver the course and mark it and perform all administration must be clearly defined.
    There must also be a clearly defined progression path to full time as well.

    Otherwise you will end up in the same horrible position as the US, the UK and Canada. I am one of these casualised teachers, and I would not wish my experience on anyone.


    Posted by Andrew | September 7, 2014, 11:34 pm
    • Australia has already gone the ‘casualisation route’, our universities have been addicted to ‘flexibility’ for some time, just like employers right across our economy, and our current government seems determined to entrench and expand employment insecurity. We have had the contract hour system since 1980 and no defined career progression out of casual employment. And we are about to get fee deregulation so no good news here Andrew!

      Posted by Robyn | September 8, 2014, 9:31 am
      • Canada still has fee regulation, which has probably helped to mitigate the worst excesses we see in the US system. A free-for all means that Universities will spend an increasing amount of money on advertising, building brand image and building nice facilities for students – to attract “customers” – a horrible term for students. The financial squeeze will be at the sharp end in the classroom. More casuals and worse treatment. Resist this!

        Posted by Andrew | September 8, 2014, 10:29 am
    • Welcome to CASA, Andrew. This is one of the reasons we’re interested in including a mix of news from around the world: to see how this logic is spreading. But as Robyn said, it’s already here, and it’s been here for a long time.
      All the systems have slightly different structural features, but the common element is that universities who can’t afford the cost of covering their core work with real career employment have become chronically habituated to insecure work to build “flexibility” into their budgets, especially as other deregulatory practices are introduced. Who knows what students will want next year, and at what price point? Who knows what factors drive their thinking? Under these circumstances a malleable curriculum taught by cheaply hired generalists makes strategic sense: it’s the best effort at agility that big public sector organisations can hope for.
      But it’s awful for the people trapped in those roles, and not obviously great for learners. And the dilemma is very sharp: should those concerned with casualisation lobby only for more real careers, or better working conditions for those working casually? And in those better conditions, what kind of career development support would be a real benefit to the individuals, not just a gesture at external quality assurance reporting for the institution?

      Posted by Kate Bowles | September 8, 2014, 9:58 am
  3. Longer term contracts, first refusal on courses, proper pension and benefits, so that people can manage to put together a reasonable life would help. Realistically, the problem isn’t going to go away, but at least it can be mitigated. We have a career development fund in our collective agreement which can be used for attending conferences, for example.

    Posted by Andrew | September 8, 2014, 10:38 am
  4. Reblogged this on National Mobilization For Equity and commented:
    In addition to news and opinion on the casualisation of Australian higher education ~ including “reform,” this week’s CASA writes about their picks in U.S. and Canadian contingent faculty bloggers. All, there and here, question sustainability in higher ed staffing.

    Posted by nationalmobilization | September 9, 2014, 1:31 am

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