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CASA weekly news 28/14

A big hello this weekend to many new CASA subscribers. CASA has been running along for six months  and is open to anyone who wants to write or raise issues concerning the casualisation of work in Australia’s higher education sector. What got us going is explained here.

Not all of our writers and editors are casuals. CASA is a home for “casuals, adjuncts, sessionals and allies”, because we know that there are many different names for the kinds of stop-gap work that Australian universities are offering; and that the situation we’re facing in Australia concerns many who have secure jobs.

Casualisation is damaging the experience of working, researching, teaching and learning in Australian higher education, and yet we hear relatively little about it in mainstream media or political reform talk, and more or less nothing from institutions themselves. We opened CASA to make some space for this difficult conversation—both to share experiences, and to look at the facts of casualisation, including in other places.

As well as publishing posts on specific topics when people have a mind to, each week we take a quick look at stuff that’s happened in Australia, and bits and pieces from elsewhere. We have a fairly wide following, including other international academic labour organisations and activists.

So what’s happening in Australia?

So if you just joined us, you’re part of this week’s news. The Guardian featured a terrific article by Rob Carr on the way in which underemployment is hidden in Australian workforce reporting. Because Rob has a background as an academic casual and activist, he also looked specifically at Australian university employment, and gave a shout out to CASA, so we were joined by many new readers and new subscribers.

One of the article’s key points is that universities are able to create a false impression of academic casualisation as a modest problem because they are only required to report academic staffing in full time equivalent (FTE) terms, rather than the actual number of staff employed casually. This means that a single FTE covers a larger number of casuals hired on multiple tiny contracts that don’t make up a full-time job—precisely the reason why we end up with underemployment for individuals.

This relates to the week’s other big bit of news, the release of the QS Rankings. Universities often give the impression that rankings only rank research, but most do make an effort to take account of teaching, so it’s worth looking at what they measure. The QS rankings give 20% weighting to teaching, using the proxy of staff-student ratio, which is treated as “an indication of commitment to teaching.”

This is a simple measure of the number of academic staff employed relative to the number of students enrolled. In the absence of an international standard by which to measure teaching quality, it provides an insight into the universities that are best equipped to provide small class sizes and a good level of individual supervision.

Well, OK. The problem is that by aggregating tenuously employed fractional staff, including those paid by the hour, and then turning them into units of imaginary full-time permanent academics, institutions are covering up a much deeper issue with commitment to teaching, which is their lack of commitment to teachers.

And there’s a further clarification here:

Whilst it would be ideal to separate the notions of teaching and research and use the former for calculating this indicator and the latter for the Citations per Faculty indicator, it has not been possible to do so as data to that degree of distinction has so far proved unavailable for many countries in the study. The definition of exactly what data we request has evolved gradually over the years to minimize ambiguity.

In other words, institutional commitment to teaching includes a significant proportion of time in which genuinely full-time academics are expected to be doing research.

What this means is that there is no cavalry coming over this particular hill, so long as higher education institutions are able to use the cloak of ambiguity to minimise the impression that they aren’t committed to teaching, by hiding those who are doing it.

What’s happening elsewhere?

In Canada, the reaction to Ira Basen’s documentary on academic casualisation continues. This week CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition published a short selection of the comments and emails that “flooded in”:

A dear friend of mine died this past January. He had been a non-tenured professor at the University of Ottawa. He received rave annual reviews from his students, many of whom attended his funeral and spoke glowingly about him as a professor. As trustee of the estate, I was shocked to learn how little the university paid him, namely some $6,200 per course, for a grand annual income of just under $50,000 – with no pension or life insurance. What is the ‘cost’ to the quality of teaching, and therefore to the education of students who pay higher and higher annual fees? Universities need to champion this issue – not to cover it up.

As the US academic year swings into action, The Chronicle reports on apparently arbitrary decisions to delay adjunct pay checks at Eastern Michigan University and Delgado Community College. The article quotes Maria Maisto from The New Faculty Majority who explains that these delays are not in themselves unusual; what has changed is that now adjuncts have more channels to share information across institutions, making systematic failures more visible.

What’s also changed is the involvement of adjuncts in union organising. The September-October edition of the AAUP magazine Academe focuses on adjunct organising and casualisation issues. It’s a big read.

The Chronicle features an excellent snapshot of the academic workforce trends in the US by Julia Schmalz and Soo Oh: “In Academe: The Future Is Part Time“. Stats, graphs and thoughtful video interviews with experienced higher education reporters.

Minding The Campus blog has a post on this same trend by Lee Kottner, looking at higher education employment as dystopian nightmare.

Rebecca Schumann has an excellent article for Slate magazine on the counter-trend emergence of PhD programs who prepare candidates for alt-ac careers, as still a rarity. Alternative academic careers represent a dilemma for higher education institutions looking to maintain graduate research recruitment but also a casual academic workforce, while facing increasing criticism for the weak academic job market. Training for alt-ac careers is a very positive step that is likely to quicken the churn in the casual workforce, if PhD graduates are better supported to move away quickly from the academic job line.

The Chronicle’s Ms Mentor column advises a would-be PhD student to listen to the counsel of her academic advisors and run in the opposite direction.

Without endorsement, here’s a link to the New Forum Press blog where some thought has been given to adjunct professional development for those who are working online.

That’s it from us, and thanks to everyone for passing this around. If you’re new to CASA and you’d like to write something here, just let us know at casualcasa at gmail dot com. If you’re on Twitter, the hashtag #auscasuals will see your tweet in our timeline. You are really welcome here.

Have a good week

@KateMfD @acahacker





About Kate Bowles

Now blogging over at musicfordeckchairs.com


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