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CASA weekly news 29/14

Welcome to this week’s CASA news, trawled from among the 132 individual and institutional submissions that have been received by the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment on the proposed higher education reform bill.

The sustainability of higher education as a profession is the elephant in the kitchen of this reform proposal, that the government and institutional major stakeholders are continuing politely to ignore. The Group of Eight, for example, included a table of student/staff ratios in their submission (p10) without any mention of what proportion of the staff are casual. Universities Australia likewise brought up student/staff ratios  (p12) without indicating how they’re calculated.

The NTEU provided the missing detail: 2013 FTE percentages for casual staff at each of Australia’s universities (p41). The NTEU also separately highlighted as a deregulation risk:

even greater reliance on casual and short-term contract staff to deliver higher education programs and undertake research as result of the higher levels of funding uncertainty associated with fully contestable funding.

The Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations focused on the proposed charges for research degrees, and didn’t mention the work that many postgraduate students end up doing to pay their way. Given that casualisation is also the reason that there are fewer new career positions in Australian higher education than there are PhD graduates and that there are many postgraduates who are also casual tutors, this is a puzzle.

 The National Union of Students did the job. Their submission addressed casualisation as a feature of the Australian workforce as a whole, that will result in higher education debt for many graduates under the new interest rate proposals. They also looked at the precarious career futures of PhD students:

Many of these students will have foregone full time income for up to 10 years by the time they have completed the university study needed to get a PhD. Many researchers will end up in their early career with casualised, intermittent work in the academic labour force or be told by employers that they are over-qualified to work in non-academic jobs.

And finally, the NUS linked increasing casualisation to student satisfaction, while in passing nailing the problem with the use of FTE equivalent data:

The second major shift has been the dramatic increase in the use of sessional teaching staff to deliver undergraduate teaching rather than permanent staff. University employment patterns over the last 15 years have shown a strong preference towards casual and part-time employment over permanent or tenured employment. The use of full time equivalent data in DEEWR data masks the extent of the casualisation of Australia’s undergraduate teachers. …

Students have repeatedly been critical of the overcrowded class rooms, laboratories and tutorials and the over-use of sessional teachers who are often difficult to access outside of the lecture theatre as they don’t have an office on campus. Despite changes to pedagogy and the greater use of multi-media formats in undergraduate teaching the funding stresses in the teaching system are evident in many faculties.

One apparent aim of the reform is to make Australia more like the US. One of the individual submitters, Queensland economist John Quiggin, also has a frank blog post out with a catchy title: “The GO8 Knows Nothing about the US University System.” Taking aim at the Group of Eight submission, he writes:

The non-research institutions actually attended by nearly half of all US students are second-tier state universities along with a variety of private institution (for-profits like Phoenix, Christian colleges and so on), none of which offer “small classes and an intense extra-curricular programme”. They operate in old and overcrowded buildings relying heavily on overworked and underpaid adjuncts.

In the comments, John Brookes mentions at a large first year textbook-taught class that has already shifted from tutorials to tutors hired for an hour a day to answer students’ questions online. This call-centre model has a number of benefits for students, as Brookes points out, and it’s straightforward work with minimum preparation. But call centre tutoring is going to be much harder to pass off to PhD students as a solid career step.

On the other hand, this week’s advertisement from the University of Melbourne for casual teaching fellowships for enrolled PhDs, for a “salary” of roughly $11K – $18K, comes with impressive promises of career benefit: “outstanding training for leading academics of the future.” As the program has been running since 2009, it would be interesting to know whether this is how things turn out, and whether or not these are the only academic casuals in the Melbourne Law School.

Back in August, newmatilda.com looked at ways to avoid getting stuck in the ‘sessional teaching trap‘, and there’s a useful debate in the comments as to whether the individual strategies promoted in the article—amounting to work-to-rule and a focus on publishing—will achieve change in the system as a whole. As commenter Dale puts it:

One risk with advocating a strategic approach, in addition to the one mentioned by your colleague Mark, is that it risks implying that the casual staff that get contract or on-going positions are those who use the right strategies; and conversely, that those who haven’t got on-going positions are those who use the wrong strategies.

That’s how it looks to us too.

The Awkward Casual Question (#ACQ)

Australian higher ed loves an acronym, so we’ve adopted one. If you’ve been at a teaching and learning conference or workshop recently, you might have encountered the ACQ. This week it came up at Richard James’ keynote for Macquarie University’s Learning and Teaching Week. The ACQ is any question that stops the flow of a rousing higher education discussion—in this case, on What Makes A University A University—through its awkward reference to the army of casuals (in teaching, administration and research) that keeps higher education on the march. Richard James handled the ACQ very well by admitting that he had no answer to the problem of casualisation—a refreshing change from events earlier this year where speakers and panels have downplayed the issue or silenced the questioner.

What’s happening elsewhere?

Those who think the casual teaching trap can be escaped on merit and teaching track record should take a Colleen Flaherty’s substantial article on the convergence of age bias and employment status bias in the US. Flaherty quotes Maria Maisto of the New Faculty Majority:

“I had a full-time professor tell me not to work as an adjunct for more than three years because it will radically decrease your chances of getting a full-time position … If you’ve been an adjunct for a long time, for whatever reason, the assumption is that you’re a failed academic.”

But some do get out, even if not to the faculty career they were hoping for. This week, Inside Higher Ed blogger and former adjunct Lee Skallerup Bessette compared her capacity to make a difference in a crisis now that she is in a secure position, and pointed out that it’s not enough simply to ask adjuncts or casuals to get more involved:

There isn’t any feeling of community, of belonging, or of even “making a difference.” As contingent faculty, it’s even hard to gauge what kind of difference you are making in a student’s life because there is not time or space to develop any sort of meaningful, long-term, mentor-mentee relationship.

For a sense of the increasing frustration felt by some US adjuncts, #burnitdown on Twitter pretty much sums things up.

And finally

If you’re working in an Australian university in a research-only position, please take 10 minutes to fill out the NTEU’s current survey. There are useful questions in there about the impact of casual research work on life planning. Much early career research work—arguably including postdocs—is on soft money or short-term funding. It’s not just teaching casuals who are airbrushed out: Australia’s research casuals are just as well hidden.

Have a good week everyone. If you want to write something here, we’d love to have you—just let us know at casualcasa at gmail. Something from a new contributor coming this week!

@acahacker and @katemfd



About Kate Bowles

Now blogging over at musicfordeckchairs.com


2 thoughts on “CASA weekly news 29/14


  1. Pingback: RT @clairebrooks: #adjunctchat #casuals #highered… « Silence and Voice - September 29, 2014

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