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Here are some reflections on the NTEU’s Insecure Work Conference which just finished in Hobart. You can see the schedule here, some bios of the speakers here, what was said on Twitter under the #securework hashtag is here, and you can watch the recorded speakers here or read the presentations here. (Warning: charts. So many charts.)

This isn’t a conference report, as we weren’t everywhere. But it’s about some of the issues that arose for us. So settle in.

On both days, we listened to a mix of speakers presenting on labour market research data, or on the bigger context for the state of the Australian higher education labour market: where the funding comes from, what the impact of this is on hiring practices, what assumptions lie behind the thinking of management and the actions of unions in response, and how the concept of labour as a whole is trending rapidly towards human unsustainability in the global economy.

We were both at Peak Chart by the middle of the first day. But from the blizzard of data, we learned many things.

First of all, whichever way the data is sliced, and whichever data source is used, and whatever timeframe you use, and whichever kind of casualisation you’re interested in (teaching, research or the most invisible of the lot, casualised non-academic staffing), the trend towards casualisation of work in Australian universities is so concretely demonstrated and evidenced that we can all stop pretending it’s some kind of temporary phenomenon that will correct itself if left alone and / or if we stick our heads in the sand, while crossing fingers and toes.

Casual university work is not a professional apprenticeship, or a useful way to gain experience on the way to a permanent job, or impressive on a CV.  Far from this being an effective career practicum, we heard over and over about the entrenched nature of long-term casualisation: people spending years, decades even, surviving on casual work alone, with no prospect of conversion to jobs that would enable them to grow as professionals, support their families and plan for their futures.

We heard about the disproportionate impact on women’s careers in particular, the contribution of early career casualisation to the aging workforce problem, and the projected convergence of casualisation with the impact of education debt on those who have shown most commitment to working in and for our universities in the future.

Casualisation was also shown to be an insecure way of managing ongoing business-as-usual work for universities themselves. As more and more of their core business converts to euphemistically defined “projects” in order to access ever diminishing soft money, and as “flexibility” becomes a code word for “all we can afford in this budget”,  universities are choking themselves with the processes and sheer effort required to hire the same people over and over again, like cruise liners who do nothing but onboard and offload people all day, and go nowhere.

Just as in the US—as we heard from Malini Cadamba from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) via Skype —Australia has already passed the half way mark in the process of what Robyn May referred to uncompromisingly as the dismantling of the profession. So if you know someone working in Australian higher education, then it is more likely than it is not that they are insecurely employed, whether on a short contract with minimum leave entitlements, all the way down to the army of the hourly paid who get no leave entitlements at all, aren’t paid for all the hours they work, and on top of that, are routinely asked to do more stuff for free.

This risk to workforce sustainability and future planning is also now a reputational risk for universities. Casualisation is increasingly exposing our campuses as bad places to work, bad models for other workplaces, and absolutely terrible contexts for our students to reframe their hopes about work away from their experience in the casual retail and service jobs they do already.

We can’t fail to be lowering their expectations for the future when the majority of the people they engage with on our campuses are working with the same level of job insecurity they associate with their own low-waged work—especially when some of those people have gone on to the highest levels of university qualification. It’s very hard to sell the message that a graduate degree will set you up for life when this is so demonstrably not true of the person who’s teaching you.

And despite things that the sector might say to comfort itself about portfolio professionals who like to contribute to Australia’s higher education effort for a bit on the side of their other glamorous careers as something else, 9/10 casuals surveyed say they would like more secure work than they have.

What we also saw is that the consequence of recurrent short-term hiring for Australia’s early career researchers is people getting stuck for years and years at the entry level because research grants budget for the cheapest possible level of pay for their contract researchers; and there is no possibility for academic casual teachers to experience anything like career and pay grade progression. Every new contract is a restart, at the bottom.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, talked at and talked over by all of this data (did we mention the charts?), so credit to the NTEU for putting such a substantial amount of conference time into structured workshops targeted at developing concrete suggestions for change. The work of their facilitators and scribes in organising heated discussion was hard, and the summaries from the discussions should be available for comment from them soon.

The workshops seemed more or less focused on helping the NTEU work more effectively for casuals. The majority of casuals are not union members and as many pointed out, don’t have reason to pay even discounted dues for a union that has only recently seemed to take an interest in their situation. Part of the problem the NTEU faces here, in our opinion, is that they’ve been interested in casualisation as a priority for much less time than many casuals have been casuals, so there are a whole lot of memories retained within long-term casual networks about the times that the NTEU quietly put their cause in the too-hard basket and sat on the lid.

So for the NTEU, a primary question is how to recruit more casuals and then campaign better on their behalf. And from many casuals, the question that was put very bluntly on Twitter: this being the case, why were there not more casuals invited as speakers? In having so few actual casuals on the speakers list, what is the NTEU doing except compound the problem casuals face, that they are the invisible workforce keeping Australia’s universities open?

We followed this up with Jeannie Rea, NTEU National President.

From her response, and from our own observation, the answer is more or less this—and we welcome comment if we’re wrong on this. The aim of this event was for the NTEU to put the research they’ve been doing on casualisation together with other existing (mostly grant-funded) labour market research within the framing context of issues faced by sector leadership, and to do this in front of a mixed audience of union branch delegates.

This research and leadership focus brought a number of securely employed academics and professional staff to the event as speakers. Because casuals themselves, including those maintaining their own research careers in their unpaid time, aren’t necessarily casualisation researchers, the very small number that were there as speakers were quarantined with us in the “activist” session.

The main platform for the many delegates who had been paid to attend as actual casuals was via the workshop sessions. And this is where it became much clearer that the NTEU had brought together a conference of PhD students, post-PhD, people working near to and post retirement on casual contracts in Australian universities. To those attending, the workshops were a strong focus in the search for real outcomes—something that would have been harder to see online.

A simple solution now to this particular visibility question would be for the NTEU to acknowledge and celebrate these delegates, just as they did the speakers, because they did a really great job. Why not list them, and ask them each for a bio, and attach that to the conference resources?

And finally: Hobart. Any event in any city is going to exclude most of Australia’s casuals from showing up to hear or contribute from the floor. There is also a huge, very hidden and deeply entrenched problem of casualisation in Australia’s rural and regional higher education institutions and satellite campuses that city-based events will never properly see. So there are no easy answers to the question of where such an event should be held.  But Hobart really is one of the more expensive places in Australia to get to without help.

So we came away thinking that it’s helpful to see this as only a beginning: an incomplete but important start to a collective approach to the human sustainability of work in Australia’s universities.

And for us as qualitative researchers, we’re now really thinking about how little space is available to the stories of lived experience, that universities have no incentive at all to preserve—quite the opposite. We’re thinking about the best networks, archives, collecting and keeping places for the everyday stories of casualisation and casualisation campaigning, especially as we learned that labour market researchers have directly identified this as a key research gap: connecting research into insecure work to research into insecure lives (Iain Campbell).

In Hobart, we all saw the impact of stories that made their way in to the margins, the comments and the conversations, and we learned from others that that’s really where communities like CASA contribute. Because when you hear of someone who has to go back to work eleven days after the birth of her third child—all three born while working casually at the same institution without any prospect of paid parental leave, let alone carer’s leave or sick leave—it stays with you. As it should.

So a huge thanks to everyone who supported us to get up there and talk—those who invited us, and made us welcome, and those who supported us as we spoke.

There’s a lot to do now.

Karina and Kate.



About Kate Bowles

Now blogging over at musicfordeckchairs.com


16 thoughts on “#securework

  1. Just a quick PS. The NTEU worked fantastically hard on this event, especially on figuring out how to overcome the “tyranny of distance” issue by using the livestream and Twitter to bring in many people who couldn’t be in the room. They were really open to all our questions, including the critical ones.

    So we’re serious when we say thanks to them, and especially to Jen T. Kwok and Jeannie Rea. There are NTEU organisers all over the country fighting for solid local results for casuals while also trying to defend their securely employed members against attack, and the stories of NTEU activism inspired us both.

    What should happen now, and what can make a difference–that’s the next thing.

    Posted by Kate Bowles | November 21, 2014, 5:36 pm
  2. And a PPS from me to echo Kate’s thanks to Jen, Jeannie, and all involved in organising the Insecure Work event. It has long been a much-needed intervention, and the fact that it was held so successfully at a time when deregulation and so many other critical issues have meant the NTEU has to Be Everywhere, makes their efforts here really stand out. I came away from Hobart inspired, dispirited-yet-motivated, determined to establish new, and maintain old alliances and networks, and all the while, thinking very, very hard about possible next steps.

    Posted by Karina | November 21, 2014, 5:55 pm
  3. Hi Karina and Kate, thank you for the post-conference update. Your post clarified a number of points that seemed unclear, especially the lack of actual casuals as speakers in what was (I initially thought) a conference for them/us. While there is always a need for facts and data, it is missing without the context of lived experiences (yep, I’m a qualitative researcher!) and I think that is important. It’s not just about soft money, unsustainable business practices and people management (students and staff). But as you have mentioned, the conference heralds the – finally, officially recognised – start of the discussion by organisations and people such as the NTEU.

    I tried to follow most of the conference, but there did seem a disconnect from the presentations focusing on either research OR teaching for casuals, when most of us are bouncing between research projects with teaching as the backup or mainstay work (we hope), Applying for teaching/lecturing jobs are not about your teaching experience; selection committees want pubs and grant success. In case this is a wrong impression, I will go back and read through the charts and presentations – thanks again for making these available.

    In relation to insecure work and ultimately, insecure lives, you might find the following posts of interest, if not already seen. The first is written by an anonymous academic on engineering degrees in British universities, where the focus is on research rather than teaching, and the implications for students – http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/nov/21/university-engineering-departments-overalls-research
    The second post is by a futurist who argues that potentially 2 billion jobs will disappear by 2030, and the implications of this for academia – http://www.futuristspeaker.com/2012/02/2-billion-jobs-to-disappear-by-2030/

    Posted by Mandalay | November 22, 2014, 1:06 pm
    • Hi Mandalay
      Thanks for this. The conference was trying to address the issues around two distinct types of university employment: hourly paid work and fixed term contracts.
      Going into the conference, I thought that fixed term contracts were primarily attached to research grants (ie ‘research-only contracts). I knew that we’ve had casuals working on research contracts – I’ve been employed this way myself. But I don’t know anything about how teaching works at a university, so I just wandered into the assumption that most hourly paid work was teaching work.
      By the end of the conference, this is what I had learnt:
      + This isn’t a research / teaching issue – it is about how people are employed.
      + Some people are employed doing hourly paid work. This work might involve teaching, research, administration – all sorts of things.
      + We should call it what it is: hourly paid work (except on your CV, where you want to look your best).
      + Similarly, limited term contracts are being used for all sorts of work situations: research, teaching and admin.
      + They can vary dramatically in length, from a few months to five years (although anything over about 2.5 years is rare, I think.)
      + In Australia, 90% of research-only limited term contracts are at 14 universities (The ‘Guilty 14’, as we took to calling them). However, the use of limited-term contracts for all sorts of work is growing across the sector.
      + The issues surrounding hourly paid work are different from those surrounding fixed term contracts.
      + The solutions are, on the other hand, surprisingly similar: open discussion, union representation, organised action, collective bargaining, test cases and legal challenges, leading to more secure work.
      I also learnt that I never want to work in the United States, but that is another story.

      Posted by Jonathan O'Donnell | November 23, 2014, 10:46 am
      • Hi Jonathan, Thanks for your reply and comments. I did go over the presentations and found that there is some consideration of the teaching/research mix, but that this seems to be categorised as tenured academics’ employment experience, rather than those who fall into the ‘insecure work’ bracket (whether hourly or fixed term). The examples I was thinking of were those PhDs/ECRs who are on fixed term research contracts but also undertake sessional teaching, or those who are on fixed term contracts (usually one semester, with hopes for roll-over into next semester) as lecturers (not tutors) often to back-fill for tenured staff on research or other leave. As you have mentioned, there are insecure staff with limited term contracts and ‘hourly rates’ covering all types of roles in academia.
        Although not wanting to complicate these issues further, the university I was with had an HR policy requiring all positions over 12 months’ duration to be advertised. However, there were numerous instances of this policy being circumvented to enable retention of (mainly research) staff. In other examples, the selection of tutorial sessional staff was devolved to primarily non-academic (i.e. general admin) personnel who had limited knowledge of course content and abused their position by not (re)engaging staff for personal reasons. Perhaps we could also add transparency and accountability to the list of solutions, as this would then place onus on the universities, schools and tenured academics to demonstrate merit in hiring practices?
        And I agree with you on the US: they are much further down the track of casualisation than we are, and one wonders how much longer such a system can be sustained.
        Thanks again!

        Posted by Mandalay | November 23, 2014, 5:08 pm
        • Thanks, Mandalay.
          Yes, there are lots of different combinations of employment that people are using, based on their individual situations. The conference didn’t get into that.
          I absolutely agree that transparency and accountability should be in the ‘solutions’ mix.

          Posted by Jonathan O'Donnell | November 23, 2014, 5:14 pm
        • I just want to chip in on the question of merit-based casual hiring practices as this came up in the workshop group I was part of.

          Working in an institution where this solution is already concretely in place, I’ve observed it replace a problem with a different problem. The criteria for merit-based hiring can’t be written to take account of having gained experience already doing the casual job in question without corrupting the process itself. So the process obliges all applicants to go back into the pool each time as if the university has never met them before, in order to ensure that there’s no favouritism.

          So I think we do need transparent processes that address the real concerns that were raised about cronyism and patronage, while recognising that constructing a faux version of the job market introduces a new set of really demoralising impositions on people working casually.

          The problem here doesn’t lie with either insecure or securely hired staff, but with a system that’s trying to cover its highly predictable ongoing workload with contingent staffing instead of stable employment.

          Posted by Kate Bowles | November 23, 2014, 5:47 pm
          • Hi Kate, I agree that the merit based approach introduces another set of problems and it is systemic. My concern was that staff who are being employed for 12 months should be automatically rolled into that position without playing HR policy roulette (eg with a two day break in contract to justify next 12 months). The Australian public service used to have a clause where any employee contracted for more than 12 months in more or less continuous hire was automatically then reviewed for permanent appointment (given recent proposed changes in the APS I don’t know if this is still the case).

            Posted by Mandalay | November 23, 2014, 9:33 pm
  4. Sorry, the third sentence should read ‘While there is always a need for facts and data, there is a lack of lived experiences for context (yep, I’m a qualitative researcher!) and I think that is important’

    Posted by Mandalay | November 22, 2014, 1:10 pm
  5. Great comment, furious nodding here. The disconnected experience that begins with casualisation into either/or contracts then extends to the huge disconnect at the recruitment stage: universities recruiting all rounders who will be hit with huge teaching loads, but on the basis of their grant/publication success.

    And now I think about it, you’re right about the presentations tending to the either/or. We’ll see if we can get one of the presenters to comment on this–both Robyn May (CASA writer) and Jonathan O’Donnell from Research Whisperer have thoughts on this I suspect.

    Posted by Kate Bowles | November 22, 2014, 3:06 pm
    • Great comments from everyone and thanks to Kate and Karina for their fabulous summary of the conference. It was truly inspiring to hear from such a broad variety of speakers and to hear the discussions of delegates turning their minds to how they can get some activism going in their branches.
      On your question Mandalay – my PhD thesis was mixed methods so along with the quant data trying to establish the size and scale and make up of the casual academic workforce I also did 2 case studies and interviewed 22 casual academics. The point of this was to get at precisely what your raise, the lived experience of casual academic work. I did find plenty of evidence of people combining a mix of casual contracts, teaching and research in order to attempt to construct an academic career and also of course to feed themselves. I noticed that the men i interviewed seemed quicker to conclude that the casual teaching contracts were a dead end and that a casual research contract offered more of a career progression opportunity because of the capacity for publications. These things all differ with academic discipline and are further complicated by the huge diversity of places from which people come to casual teaching. That’s why i try to stick to the key themes of – most (close to 60%) want a more secure academic position and that the conditions under which these staff are employed are not conducive to good teaching quality (not that they are poor quality teachers). If we delve too far into the complexities and diversity a lot gets lost in the noise and really we still have a big job to convince the decision makers in the sector about the main issues. Teaching quality is a big lever if the message is delivered sensibly and strategically, in a deregulated environment reputations will matter.

      Posted by Robyn | November 23, 2014, 9:29 pm
      • Hi Robyn, your case studies sound interesting! Looking back, I can now see that the men who were doing PhDs or in other casual research type contracts did tend to avoid teaching, and some of these have ended up with tenured teaching positions. Alternatively, those who did have to teach were quite strategic in their approach and not so taken up with the minutiae or emotions of student management compared to their female cohort, so maybe it’s inherent to gender?! A whole other topic! And you are right, key themes to effect change.

        Posted by Mandalay | November 24, 2014, 11:03 am


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