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.