Hello, and welcome to this week’s roundup of things relevant to casualisation in Australia’s higher education sector.
A bit of a backlog of news this week, as we took a break last week while falling down a hole and coming out with more questions than answers about the status of Australia’s casualised workers.
What’s going on?
Reform: still stuck. (Read thoughtful analysis from Gavin Moodie here on why this might be.)
Australia’s casualised university employees and their allies continue to watch the reform debate closely. Any discussions of defunding the sector as a whole connect to back office calculations about the management of staffing costs by a range of means from redundancies to casualisation. So while the debate itself maintains its scrupulous refusal to discuss the viability of the academic profession as a core issue, whenever you hear universities talking about funding as a problem, remember that this is exactly how casualisation became entrenched as the fix.
The government is now heavily promoting a modified reform package with a cheery animation for TV and Facebook, although things are a little less active on Twitter where their new student-facing account has fired off a mighty seven tweets.
What’s happening elsewhere?
Plenty of practical actions taking place across the US. One of the most eye-catching pieces of news was the rehiring of formerly banned “adjunct with a past” James Kilgore at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, causing a major donor to the university to threaten to withdraw a $4.5 gift to the University of Illinois Chicago. (The Symbionese Liberation Army is quite some past.) Graduate students at Rutgers held a public grade-in to draw student and administrator attention to their pursuit of better labour contracts. And it seems as though collective strike action involving graduate students employed to teach and their department allies at the University of Oregon has resulted in an agreement.
Surveys, many surveys. The UCU Anti-Casualisation committee are running a survey on how casuals survive in the UK system. In Ireland, the 3LWWW collective have reopened their survey, and put out this infographic showing what they know so far. In the US, Adjunct Action created the Office Hours project, a password protected and anonymised time tracking instrument for adjuncts to measure their real hours of work. And Rebecca Schuman is running a survey to find out how much of their own money adjuncts are having to spend to fly to the annual MLA convention to interview for one of the diminishing number of tenured positions on this year’s job list.
Meanwhile, the MLA’s elections closed. Australian casuals will appreciate the thinking in this short video explaining the conviction and philosophy of those who stood for executive office on an adjunct ticket.
Continuing the trend towards widening mainstream media coverage of the staffing of US universities by “the hyper educated poor”, Elle magazine carried a sympathetic profile of an adjunct working at Columbia University, living on foodstamps while caring for her child with a serious disability. In the UK’s Guardian Higher Ed, a long-term casual academic also caring for a disabled child explained her decision to leave teaching for retail work:
I’ve been on zero-hours contracts for some time and it has finally got to me. I’m tired of thinking I’ve secured a future for me and my child, tired of thinking I won’t have to worry about whether we both eat or whether we have heating, tired of worrying how we will cope if my child loses their school coat. … I’ve decided to leave teaching for a supermarket job that will give me the security of knowing how much I’ll have available to pay my bills each month.
Meanwhile, a heartbreaking self-critique from a long-term (ten year) anonymous adjunct at an R1.
Many people reading these articles might be asking how smart, qualified and experienced people end up in jobs with such poor prospects. What memo did they miss? As the first article makes clear, many current US adjuncts were led to expect at least modest secure employment on completing their PhDs because they were supervised and advised by scholars whose careers were built during a time when 75% of the US academic workforce held tenured positions. This situation has now reversed, and continues to worsen. Inside Higher Ed covered the MLA’s annual report on the academic labour market in English and languages, noting the continued downturn in jobs relative to PhDs graduating: a further 8.4% decline in English, and 6.8% in languages.
The duration of the downturn is key to understanding just how difficult the job market can be today. Since class after class of new Ph.D.s has produced many who are either unemployed or under-employed (and many of whom apply again for jobs the next year), competition for jobs is intense.
Similar analysis of the US job market relative to PhD completion here, and a substantial investigation of the problem of too many postdocs for available positions in science from the Times Higher Ed here. In other words, smart people are getting stuck in long-term adjuncting because the advice they received as graduate students was very poor relative to actual academic labour market data.
What options are there? Six months ago, adjunct academic Anne Helen Pedersen gave up looking for academic work and was hired as a BuzzFeed staff writer. This month she published an article on how this turned out:
When I was teaching — especially at the University of Oregon and the University of Texas — my experience was always defined by limits. How many copies I could make; how much space I could take up in the shared grad student office; how little money I had for research. …
Which is why entering a landscape that is promising and productive — defined by an atmosphere of plenty, and a lack of limits — has redefined the way I approach every workday.
Chronicle Vitae published an article by Audra Wolfe, independent scholar, on sustaining both scholarly and other kinds of careers outside academic employment.
What’s at stake for universities in trying to think about why this might be their loss? One answer from a large US study conducted earlier this year is that university graduates who feel strongly supported during their college years go on to thrive professionally and experience higher levels of wellbeing in their futures:
We may learn that the real disruptive innovation in education is the need for a human support system and deep learning experiences. Though colleges and universities might be threatened by disruption from online courses, they should have an advantage on fundamentals like mentoring, caring professors and deep and experiential learning. But institutions will only capitalize on these advantages if they intentionally invest in them. So far, most are not.
So what are universities intentionally investing in? As Gawker and Inside Higher Ed reported, Kean University in New Jersey spent $219,000 on a “22-foot, circular, mixed-media conference centre [including] an intelligent conferencing system with the ability to connect people at up to 25 locations around the world for remote conference calls and to record meetings.”
That’s a very big conference table, in case you were wondering.
On that note, thanks for sharing the news around, and our thoughts are with all casuals reflecting on choices and offers of work for next year.