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Adjuncts, International, News

CASA weekly news 30/14

Hello, and welcome to our new subscribers over the last two weeks. We took a mini-break for the long weekend, so this is a delayed news roundup, with some more higher education rankings excitement, and news of increasingly organised industrial action in the US.

In the last post we mentioned the QS rankings, noting that they use staff:student ratio as a proxy for teaching quality. Last week the Times Higher Education global rankings were released. The THE evaluation of the learning environment is far more complex, with some interesting implications for casualisation. The learning environment is worth 30% of an institution’s score, which is modest compared to the emphasis placed on research—but it’s not nothing. There are 5 performance indicators; half the weighting comes from the teaching elements in the Thomson Reuters survey (“the world’s largest invitation-only academic reputation survey”, with 10,000 responses). The remaining four factors are staff:student ratios (“a simple and admittedly crude proxy for teaching quality”); the ratio of doctoral degrees to Bachelor’s degrees awarded; the overall number of doctoral degrees; and the amount of money available to support the teaching environment.

These measures reveal relevant assumptions if you’re trying to understand the rise of casualisation. As with the QS rankings, the way staff:student ratios mask casualisation is an obvious problem given the thinking behind it: “that where there is a healthy ratio of students to staff, the former will get the personal attention they require from the institution’s faculty.” What happens if the majority of the teaching staff aren’t part of the institution’s faculty in any meaningful way, and are having to offer personal attention from the campus coffee shop?

Secondly, treating postgraduate recruitment as an indicator of undergraduate experience is also painfully ironic given that undergraduate students are most directly exposed to the work of postgraduates as casualised university workers.

We believe that institutions with a high density of research students are more knowledge-intensive and that the presence of an active postgraduate community is a marker of a research-led teaching environment valued by undergraduates and postgraduates alike. … As well as giving a sense of how committed an institution is to nurturing the next generation of academics, a high proportion of postgraduate research students also suggests the provision of teaching at the highest level that is thus attractive to graduates and effective at developing them. Undergraduates also tend to value working in a rich environment that includes postgraduates.

What this means: in the THE rankings there is (modest) benefit in recruiting research students; but no penalty for using them to staff undergraduate teaching. Is this what the THE means by “a research-led teaching environment”? Let’s hope not.

This week the Illawarra Mercury covered exactly this issue in in its profile of Russell Walton who has been an academic casual since 2008 while finishing his PhD, and so can’t take out a mortgage or plan a family holiday:

In addition to having no paid holidays or sick leave, he never knows, at the end of every year, whether he has a job to return to. ‘‘You are living life permanently on hold because you can’t plan for anything – I can’t guarantee getting work,’’ he said.

The other news that’s dominated Australian higher education this week has been the Senate committee hearings into the proposed higher education reform bill. Stephen Matchett has been providing excellent and detailed coverage at his daily Campus Morning Mail news site. If you’re not already a CMM subscriber, here’s Friday’s useful summing up.

What’s going on elsewhere?

All year there has been steady coverage of the unionisation of the 70 or more percent of college teachers in the US who aren’t within cooee of a tenure track position. There are different unions involved and different cross-industry and regional alliances developing, and there’s a good summary of the situation here. Unionisation has a secondary impact in the US: it’s one of the ways in which adjunct issues are getting mainstream and local media coverage beyond higher education outlets. See for example this article in the Huffington Post by Leo Gerard, International President of the United Steelworkers, profiling adjunct Mary Grace Gainer, who was told by her doctoral advisors that even though the academic job market looked patchy, “good people get good jobs”:

She earned straight A’s. She presented papers at academic conferences, including at Princeton. She sweated over her instructional duties, earning rave reviews from her students. She served as an officer for academic organizations and helped plan educational events. But then, to her horror, with $90,000 in student debt and a family to support, she discovered good people don’t always get good jobs. Against her will and her efforts, Gainer joined the world’s growing ranks of marginalized workers. They live precariously, without health insurance, without a living wage, without a schedule for duty, without a guarantee of work the next week or month.

Given the uneven unionisation across the US, coordinating a National Walkout Day is an ambitious action that will take very significant commitment. Which adjuncts or adjunct organisations speak for others? Inside Higher Ed reported on the planned action this week, and the Facebook community page is here. Adjuncts are already asking whether their tenured colleagues will walk out with them; they have four months to find out. The planned day of action is Feb 25 2515.

The announcement of Adjunct Professsor Link, a recruitment agency formed to enable adjuncts and colleges to find each other—a kind of LinkedIn for adjuncts—was met with some ambivalence.

This week’s find: the website for the study of contingent academic workers at George Mason University, a project of the GMU Public Sociology Association, whose major report is now available for download.

Who owns teaching resources prepared by academic casuals?

The ownership of teaching resources is vexed for everyone, and is especially problematic for academic casuals. It’s magnified by the requirement to place teaching resources online, as these can easily be rolled over to a new year to be taught by someone else. The standards for attribution of original materials are very weak. Chronicle Vitae reported last week on the case of Karen McArthur, an adjunct Art History professor who discovered that her entire course had been delivered by someone else the following year, including personal material that she had included in order to illustrate to students the experience of seeing artworks in famous galleries.

Is unpaid work worth it for the career experience?

This is a question being tested in the US entertainment industry, following successful action by unpaid interns against Fox Corporation. The lawsuit has exposed all sorts of murky practices that appear to violate US labour law, not least by using unpaid interns to displace paid workers. At first glance, higher education doesn’t seem to do this sort of thing—until you look closely at how much unpaid work is done by academic casuals, displacing the need to pay staff to get the whole job done.

That’s it for this week. We’re back in action, and we’d love to hear from you, especially if you have ideas for things you’d like CASA to look into, or an article you’d like to write: casualcasa at gmail.com. Thanks more than we can say for sharing CASA news around your networks.

@katemfd @acahacker

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

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