And … we’re back.
CASA took a long summer break for health reasons, and now we’re back and ready to start sorting through the news pile. First, a very overdue thanks to everyone who helped us out and encouraged us last year. If you’d like to make a contribution to the higher education debate through CASA in 2015, we’re here to help–just email us at casualcasa at gmail dot com.
What’s happening here?
In December’s cabinet reshuffle, the Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, was made Minister for Education and Training, assisted by Senator Simon Birmingham. The government’s higher education reform package is still stuck, and the new Higher Education Twitter account (“Your future is Australia’s future. Australia has one of the best higher education systems in the world and the Government plans to make it even better”) still hasn’t advanced on its total of seven tweets fired off in an excited hurry in December. The associated brightly coloured campaign website includes short videos and a quiz, and a section awkwardly titled Higher Education Is Worth Doing. Check it out here, and see the NTEU response here.
This advertising campaign reportedly cost us $8m all up. Why did we need it?
A spokesman for Education Minister Christopher Pyne said: “Research has shown that misinformation about key aspects of the proposed higher education reforms is making it difficult for prospective students and their parents to make decisions about their future.
Uncertainty about the future isn’t news for Australia’s casual university workers, nor is it clear how one of the best higher education systems in the world intends to remain this way without addressing the reality that for too many of Australia’s PhD graduates, higher education has not proved particularly worth doing.
The other development at the end of the year was the judgment by the Fair Work Commission in relation to the Swinburne University of Technology Academic & General Staff Enterprise Agreement 2014. At the heart of this case is the question of whether the approval of a university staff Agreement should involve casual or sessional staff, and if so how to determine the eligibility of casual staff to vote.
We’re not here to comment on individual enterprise agreement negotiations, but there are some conclusions in this judgment that get to grips with the complexity of the contemporary academic workplace. Workplace agreements are negotiated and approved on the basis of a vanished model of secure employment, in which management and committed employees reset the terms of their relationship over a period of years. This exposes the problem of employees hired for a matter of weeks or months, but repeatedly re-engaged, who also have a long-term relationship with the same employer, and whose conditions of employment are explicitly addressed in the Agreement. Shouldn’t they have a say in how things are done, even if they are not working at the precise moment that the Agreement is put up for approval?
On the other hand, there are sensible reasons why previously employed staff with no interest in returning in the future should not be invited to vote on workplace agreements. The potential for corruption, in the grand tradition of Australian branch-stacking, is pretty clear.
This dispute made clear that the long-term rehiring of casual staff is a planned feature of higher education, but that universities have very poor capacity to track or communicate with those staff, making it particularly difficult to verify (or deny) their eligibility to vote. In the end, the Fair Work Commission did not agree with the NTEU that extending the vote to sessional staff hired the previous year had invalidated the approval process, even if weak record-keeping had resulted in some inappropriate invitations being sent.
 For the reasons given earlier, given the nature of the industry in which Swinburne operates, the nature of its enterprise and the use to which it puts sessional employees in the conduct of courses offered by Swinburne it was both reasonable and appropriate for Swinburne to request persons who were engaged by it as sessional employees during the 2013 academic year and who are likely to be engaged as sessional employees in the 2014 academic year to vote on the 2014 Agreement. This was because such employees were in our view properly described as usually employed by Swinburne and properly described as persons who will be covered by the agreement.
This judgment confirms that sessional staff can form a significant voting group, and perhaps even a majority. So the next question is about the presumption of solidarity among casual and permanent staff when it comes to setting workplace priorities for the future.
What’s happening elsewhere?
On the question of solidarity across the academic profession, adjuncts in the US are preparing for National Adjunct Walkout Day. You can follow #NAWD on Twitter, or on Facebook here, and there are planning forums here. Supportive articles are beginning to appear on academic blogs, like this one on ethnography.com:
[A]ny of us who have adjuncted for more than 3 years knows, it’s an unequal, two-tier system where two groups of teachers do the same job but only one is awarded a decent salary/benefits/occupational status. Can you imagine if these were side-by-side workers? It wouldn’t happen; the inequality works because the two groups of workers are separated and invisible to each other. From my perspective, change will have to come from the bottom up, not as individuals but as a collective. Individual adjuncts are not wrong in fearing their institutions, there is much to fear. But acting together to make the inequality visible, well that might be a good beginning to a series of actions intended to redress the injustice of adjunctification.
Adjunct inclusion in the governance of major academic associations in the US continues to test claims of solidarity, and the #MLAdemocracy movement (see website here) has taken this up along with other issues. Meanwhile, the #MLAdemocracy group nominating for MLA Executive were not successful in 2014, despite polling well. As a result, they are now running a campaign to increase adjunct participation through reduced dues.
A long read on solidarity to start the year: activist Yasmin Nair’s “Solidarity Without Affect“, on the political limitations of anti-casualisation campaigning focused simply on opening more tenure lines but otherwise preserving higher education as it is. Nair concludes with warm encouragement for the organising committee of this year’s MLA SubConference, and puts solidarity in the bigger picture of universities and other workers in their communities.
That’s got us back into the swing of things for 2015. Thanks for sharing these posts around, and a warm welcome to all the new subscribers who joined us over the summer.
Karina (@acahacker) and Kate (@katemfd)