Welcome to this week’s round up of news from Australia and internationally on the casualisation of higher education.
The major news in Australia this week is that despite some things getting fixed, the government’s reform proposals for higher education were once again voted down in the Senate. The Universities Australia response is here. The response from the Group of Eight is reported here. The Regional Universities Network’s disappointment is expressed here. George Morgan, founder member of the National Alliance for the Public University, responded here.
The reform debate has skirted around working conditions, but has consistently focused on another issue that affects Australia’s academic casuals: unpaid education debt. The Minister has now raised the question of whether universities could share some responsibility for doubtful debt—the proportion of graduate debt that seems likely to remain unpaid for a range of reasons, including graduate working overseas, or remaining below the repayment threshold (typically through raising children and/or working casually), or graduates who die before repaying. Andrew Norton responds.
Gavin Moodie in The Conversation offers six steps that the government can take to get a better outcome next time.
Advocates of structural reform argue that it’s essential to maintaining Australia’s research capacity, particularly in terms of research training. Critics of reform pay equally close attention to the increasing cost of the PhD relative to the health of the academic job market. This week an older post on the OECD blog resurfaced, looking at investment in PhD programs internationally, noting that “between 2000 and 2012 the graduation rate among doctoral students has increased by 60% on average across OECD countries”, and that “ambitious countries, such as Switzerland, Sweden and Germany, have expanded doctoral programmes as part of their efforts to rapidly improve their relative position in the science and research fields and in global university rankings.”
The problem with expanding doctoral programs as a rankings strategy is that the prospect of work is contracting, so there’s nowhere for the expanding numbers of graduates to go, especially with so many other countries all pursuing the same strategy:
Surely the academic system itself – especially in an age of economic crisis and austerity – is not expanding at an equivalent rate, so employment opportunities for PhDs in academia are limited. Many countries try to increase the return on the huge investments made in doctoral programmes, by offering more opportunities at the post-doctoral level; but despite those attempts, the prospects of successfully pursuing an academic career is not bright.
If Australia wants to take the ambitious path and sustain (let alone expand) doctoral training, it doesn’t make sense to increase the cost of PhD enrolment, or increase the pressure on postgraduate education debt, if getting stuck in seasonal casual work is the predictable outcome. This is what makes casualisation a critical policy problem for the whole system, rather than simply a cost cutting solution to undergraduate teaching. The sustainability of Australia’s research productivity depends on future research students either not knowing the odds of gaining secure academic employment, or continuing to find the risk worth taking, or leaving and taking their research training with them.
What are the chances?
What’s happening elsewhere?
Bettina Chang for the Pacific Standard website reported on a small survey (just under 500 responses) of US adjuncts, with 62% reporting annual income of less than $20K.
NBC Miami ran a story on adjuncts as academia’s underclass, also pointing out that the pay rates for adjunct work reflect the assumption that adjuncts have other kinds of work, which is much less likely in the humanities than in some professional fields. US mainstream media coverage increasingly draws attention to the impression this creates with students:
Unless that changes, students at local state colleges should get used to the fact that the professor teaching their class might be making less money than they are working at the mall.
In the UK, the UCU put out a brief report on their Stamp Out Casual Contracts campaign.
In Canada, strike action by graduate teaching assistants and others against precarious employment reached tentative agreement. (For background and coverage of this strike action, the CUPE3903 Strike newspaper is here.)
This week’s long read: Henry Giroux’ latest blog for TruthOut on higher education and the politics of disruption, that doesn’t hold back:
Central to this view of higher education in the United States is a market-driven paradigm that seeks to eliminate tenure, turn the humanities into a job preparation service and transform most faculty members into an army of temporary subaltern labor. For instance, in the United States out of 1.5 million faculty members, 1 million are “adjuncts who are earning, on average, $20K a year gross, with no benefits or healthcare, and no unemployment insurance when they are out of work.” (8) The indentured service status of such faculty is put on full display as some colleges have resorted to using “temporary service agencies to do their formal hiring.” (9) A record number of adjuncts are now on food stamps and receive some form of public assistance. Given how little they are paid this should not come as a surprise, though that does not make it any less shameful. (10) As Noam Chomsky has argued, this reduction of faculty to the status of subaltern labor is “part of a corporate business model designed to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” (11)
While it has been clearly recognized that the ideal of shared governance between faculty and administrators has broken down, what has not been analyzed is how the Walmart model of power and labor relations – in both the university and the larger society – is connected to the massive inequality in wealth and income that now corrupts every aspect of US politics and society.
To see what’s behind the footnotes, read the whole thing here.
What’s coming up?
Here’s advanced notice of a virtual conference targeted at graduate students on post-academic careers, to be held on two days in May. The registration costs $25 for one day, or $39 for both. The conference will be held through an online platform that will allow participants to ask questions, and there will be a Twitter hashtag.
And graduate students at Concordia University are conducting a survey on the experiences of those working casually in film and media disciplines, ahead of the annual SCMS conference in Montreal this week. So if this is you, please take a moment to fill out the survey—especially as it’s genuinely international in its reach.
That’s it from us for this week. As we all wait for Deregulation 3, we’ll keep on pointing out that casualisation isn’t just a problem for university teachers and researchers in casual employment; the state of the academic profession is a critical challenge for the sustainability of Australia’s higher education system as a whole. In the meantime, thanks for forwarding this news around your networks—we really appreciate it.
Karina and Kate