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Experiences

On looking beyond sideways

As we organise ourselves to join the conversation in Hobart about insecure work in Australian higher education, this new post from Natalie really sums up what we care about, and why we built CASA as a platform where the lived experience of Australia’s higher education casual workers could make a critical contribution to the way we think about casualisation and its impact. Comments, thoughts, warmly welcome – Kate and Karina

Last week wasn’t a good week in my circle of niceness. There were a few disappointed hopes regarding jobs and grant applications, and a prevailing air of hopelessness and desperation. I was also disappointed—and angry—for my colleagues and friends. They are brilliant, hard-working, passionate, dedicated academics, in fields that most people would agree are in desperate need of clever thinkers, researchers, communicators, educators and problem-solvers. Despite their many talents and the calibre of their work, they are of the Higher Education Precariat.

Given the torrent of disappointments concentrated over a mere few days, I also found myself feeling bitter. Resentful. Glancing sideways at people who have managed to finagle a position (be it permanent or, more likely, just a ‘good’ contract) or a grant, and wonder, ‘why them? Why are they—or their project—more worthy?’

Erica Cervini recently wrote about this in an article for The Age, describing academia as “a bitter divide between the haves and the have nots”—that is, between those in permanent positions (or even those on ‘good’ contracts that are relatively long-term with the possibility of permanence) and those of us in the precariat; un/der-employed on short-term contracts. Given current politics and trends in the sector, this “bitter divide” may soon become a chasm.

But as I caught myself glancing resentfully sideways at those who have been successful in finding work or funding, I realised I’m looking in the wrong direction. The problem isn’t sideways. ‘Why X and not Y?’, ‘Why is this project funded and not that one?’, are the wrong questions; they foster resentment, bitterness and divisions in the wrong place. The better question is, ‘why not both?’

Why are there hundreds of fantastic candidates competing for every post? Why are there people with years of post-doctoral experience under their belts applying for entry-level academic positions? Why aren’t there more opportunities? Why at the same time are student/staff ratios worsening?

The problem is not sideways—it’s system-wide.

It’s a permanent member of staff retiring (or moving on) and not being replaced; their teaching work is casualised/contracted, and their PhD students are stranded when there is no new hire in a commensurate field to take over their supervision.

It’s a successful grant that includes several funded PhD studentships, but no postdoctoral positions.

It’s the expectation that we should be prepared to move to the other side of the world for a short term contract, with no regard to family or caring responsibilities.

It’s knowing that networking and visibility are key to employment, but not having the funding to attend the “vital” international conferences.

It’s needing to take on casual teaching work to survive, taking time away from the activities you most need to become competitive: researching and publishing.

It’s needing your papers to be accessible so that they’re better cited, but having no funding to pay open access fees.

It’s being stranded with a growing HECS debt and a doctorate, over-qualified for work outside of academia and yet seemingly unemployable within it.

I could go on.

These are systemic problems shaped by structural factors relating to the funding of higher education and research and the corporatisation and neoliberalisation of universities. Systemic problems have to be tackled collectively, at the scale of the system.

Glancing resentfully sideways is easy to do when one feels desperate, afraid and fundamentally insecure. Indeed, one could argue that pitting us against each other in this way is one strategy the system uses to defend itself. But our successes should enable us to encourage each other.

But this lateral resentment only divides those of us who most need to find solidarity with one another, if we are to tackle the structural problems that constrain and threaten us all.

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