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CASA weekly news 37/14

Hello and welcome to this week’s news on casualisation in higher education, at the beginning of the Long Australian Summer for casual academic university staff.

At the recent NTEU Insecure Work conference in Hobart, one of the most interesting sets of details related to the long-term casualisation of routine university administrative work through the use of short-term contracts funded on soft money.

If you’re not familiar with soft money, it’s all kinds of funding designed to be used for projects with end dates; it’s not insubstantial, and it’s becoming a major source of contract labour in higher education. Key sources include the Student Services and Amenities Fee, and the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, as well as funding that universities set aside for major projects in areas like education technology implementation.

So if you know of a university project manager or project officer or research associate or research assistant she or he might seem to have all the trappings of secure employment, including a cubicle in an open plan office and a staff email address, but at this time of year there are admin casuals also facing the end of their latest contract, neatly timed to finish just before Christmas to avoid being paid the concessional days and holidays over the break. And they can’t get loans on that basis either, although if they are already servicing mortgage or education debts or supporting families when they take on casual university work, this kind of on-off hiring is exactly the life challenge you think it is.

Meanwhile, Jonathan O’Donnell published his Hobart presentation on data suggesting that the research workforce is aging as a blog post for The Research Whisperer, with a very useful conversation in the comments about whether the focus on the fact that lead grant Chief Investigators are getting older is misleading–and whether this could be remedied without introducing further prejudice against people who are older ECRs.

What’s happening elsewhere?

In the UK, a report on hourly paid academic work at Sheffield Hallam university noted all of the problems that we see here in Australia. The relevant detail is that, as in the US, this report was also covered in local mainstream media in Sheffield, even if only briefly. Mainstream national and local media coverage of adjunct issues in the US and Canada has been one of the key features of this year, and it would be even more sensitively received in Australia, if and when any kind of redirection towards more competition for student attention occurs.

One of the emerging media stories in US higher education is retirement. This week Rebecca Schuman weighed in on the debate for Slate magazine, pointing out the limitations in thinking that someone retiring from a tenured position naturally creates a tenured job opening:

It is, of course, highly problematic that the median age for a tenured faculty member in the U.S. is now 55. But that’s not because the old professors won’t leave their jobs. It’s because in the new culture of academia, all professors, young or old, are thought of as obsolete afterthoughts: interchangeable hired help at the resort. So let those relics be. Quite a few of them are actually great at their jobs. They’re the last holdouts in a dying institution, and when they do finally “get out of the way,” what they make room for won’t be pretty.

Chronicle Vitae published a substantial article on the shadow problem of the aging adjunct workforce who can’t afford to retire because they have nothing set aside for later life. Under the blunt headline “Suicide is My Retirement Plan“, senior reporter Stacey Patton explored several cases of adjunct professors working beyond 60, and put this in the context of the surprisingly scant data available on the age profile of the majority academic workforce in the US.

It’s an article worth reading in full, especially if you think the US is some kind of role model for Australian higher education.

Vitae also showed the background results of a small online poll that they ran (n = 230) looking at adjunct financial preparedness for retirement.

Adjunct instructors at two Vermont colleges have voted to join the SEIU through their combined campaign with Adjunct Action. Two factors are worth thinking about here. First of all, the campaigns were given strong community and local political support:

Throughout the campaign, adjunct faculty at both schools received an outpouring of support from Vermonters. Senator Bernie Sanders sent a letter of support, as did a number of city council members, state legislators, and the AFT/AAUP-led union representing faculty at the University of Vermont. Hundreds of students and community members signed a petition supporting the organizing efforts, which was delivered to school administrators.

Secondly, from the same source, adjuncts themselves reported feeling that the action created energy and goodwill among previously isolated professional college staffers:

“Ever since we started the process of forming our union, I’ve been feeling more and more empowered. I’m already noticing that we adjuncts are talking to each other a lot more, and we have a much greater sense of collegiality. I no longer feel marginalized on campus,” said Betsy Allen-Pennebaker, who teaches at Champlain College. “I think that this victory today is a wonderful thing for adjuncts, not only in terms of pay and job security, but also in how we feel about ourselves and our profession.”

Ending on a similarly positive note, Josh Boldt published a beautiful post on AdjunctThanksgiving on his Order of Education blog, reflecting on all the progress that’s been made there in the last year.

Bits and pieces

From the #auscasuals timeline, a CFP circulated for an edited book on feminist early career academics. Deadline for abstract is quick, but the editors are interested in both short personal pieces (3000 words) as well as longer research articles, and their CFP acknowledges casualisation.

That’s it’s from us. This week we’ll be at the higher education career panel at the CSAA Conference Prefix day in Wollongong, and as ever you can find us on Twitter (@acahacker and @KateMfD) or via casualcasa at gmail dot com.

Kate and Karina.

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

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