Welcome to this week’s news on the casualisation of higher education in Australia, kicking off with Andrew Trounson’s article for The Australian on higher education submissions to the Productivity Commission’s current enquiry into Workplace Relations. This alerted us to the submission to the enquiry from the Innovative Research Universities, which recognises casualisation as both significant, and a risk:
The reliance on many casual staff has risks for universities longer term.
There are many reasons for the growth in the number of casual staff proportionate to other employment mechanisms. Significant factors are the difficulty universities have to reduce ongoing staff positions when functions change or academic areas shrink and the restrictions on use of fixed term positions. These are restrictions primarily based on the agreements universities have with staff that reflect past assumptions about employment arrangements and distrust from the official employee representatives about alternative employment forms.
The existing arrangements lock in the high level of casual employment. If changes to the number of ongoing positions were easier, and the restrictions on use of fixed term appointments fewer then the use of casual positions would be better targeted, reducing the current distinctions in treatment of staff.
The Australian’s article quoted Stuart Andrews, Executive Director of workplace relations lobby group the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, putting it more plainly:
“With the additional restrictions on universities on the use of fixed-term contracts, universities are therefore increasingly pushed to using casual employment when they otherwise wouldn’t. The extent of the casualisation problem faced by the sector is a byproduct of the inflexibilities associated with other forms of employment available to universities.”
The short version: we don’t have tenure in Australia, but it’s a significant matter to terminate academic employment, and there are strong restrictions on fixed-term contract hiring. Australia’s universities are arguing that this expectation of job security, and the associated costs of severance, are a deterrent to hiring under current market conditions, and that this leaves little choice but to default to an hourly paid academic workforce who can be shifted around as the wind blows.
The more complex AHEIA submission is here.
What’s happening elsewhere?
On the question of casualisation as institutional risk, the industrial situation in Ontario continues to be instructive, as it concerns both the sustainability of graduate student recruitment, and the undergraduate student experience. From the Savage Minds blog:
It is irreducibly a political issue that cuts to the heart of the role of the university in society at large, and the structural experience of graduate students as disposable contract labourers who contribute substantially to the overall teaching load, and particularly to the qualitative pedagogical character of overburdened, over-enrolled courses in which few undergraduate students (referred to as “Basic Income Units” in university planning and finance documents) ever have a chance to engage directly with tenured faculty.
Precarious Physicist issues a report card for all concerned, and awards an F to contract staff (along with undergraduate and graduate students):
This group is now utterly essential at all Ontario Universities. They used to be mostly either graduate students teaching an occasional course for teaching experience, or subject specialists who had a permanent job elsewhere and taught a class on the side, examples being lawyers, architects and public servants. There has been a rapid expansion of their numbers because the University has now subverted this role into teaching the core courses which should be taught by permanent staff. As contract labour is many times cheaper (say three to five times cheaper) than permanent staff, the Universities love the idea of employing this group, but treat them with complete contempt. This group has no job security and very poor benefits (if any).
For more on the Toronto situation here, here and here. On Friday, Inside Higher Ed reported that the University of Toronto month-long strike had moved to binding arbitration, three days after this:
#UofT just sent this letter to all undergrads. Academic year won’t be extended, grades will be assigned arbitrarily. pic.twitter.com/c0BTou0GCQ
— Zane Schwartz (@ZaneSchwartz) March 24, 2015
Australian universities thinking about casualisation as an institutional risk will be following the Toronto strikes closely. The Guardian also puts the Ontario strikes in the context of student actions against the marketisation of higher education here.
Meanwhile, Slate magazine discussed new data on the sharply declining job market for Humanities PhDs, as did the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
N+1 carried a long article on the challenges of unionisation among graduate students at NYU, that raises bigger questions about the sustainability of “a system trying to keep up appearances”:
Through it all, though, the American university has clung to the image of the old craft-production model of academic work, where apprentices (grad students) learn from master craftsmen (the tenured)—even as the rising use of adjuncts, postdocs, and graduate teachers has quietly reshaped the world of academic work. This slow-moving transformation beneath the surface of a system trying to keep up appearances is making a public conversation about the state of intellectual life and work unavoidable.
This article is one of many noting that a generation of graduate students are waiting on the promise of a wave of academic retirements. Melonie Fullick skewers this in her excellent series of posts on the myths of the academic labour market:
The culture of doctoral education as preparation for academe (even when it doesn’t sufficiently fulfil this function) also supports entrenched myths about the academic job market, such as that zombie of a trope, the “Great Wave of Faculty Retirements.” Even now — in 2015 — we see the same old idea being trotted out: because so many profs belong to the Baby Boomer generation, we can expect many of them to retire soon, which in turn means new tenure-stream openings for early-career academics. This sounds great, until you look at the facts.
Read the article in full here.
Under these circumstances, that seem so unlikely to change, would adjunct and contract academics be better off getting more involved in their departments, to challenge the assumption that they have less to offer than their tenured colleagues? Colleen Flaherty has a long, thoughtful article on a recent conference panel discussion, that doesn’t paint an optimistic picture.
At Chronicle Vitae, Kelly J Baker asks important questions about whether or not adjuncts can afford to take an activist stance, especially in social media, and Sarah Kendzior puts more detail on the picture of how difficult it is to try to maintain a scholarly writing career without institutional affiliation:
Such is the circuitous path around a paywall: You borrow a friend’s ID and library login, you ask former colleagues to send you articles, you email the author requesting a copy of his or her work, you start offering drinks to graduate students in exchange for PDFs. Suddenly, you are a player on the nerdiest black market around.
Finally, Carmen Machado’s beautiful New Yorker article “O Adjunct! My Adjunct“, that was widely shared this week, confronts one of the most serious risks of casualisation to higher education as a whole: that it’s a systemic lowering of hopes, handed down from adjuncts to adjuncts.
I don’t only want to teach; I want teaching to be a career, something that I can afford to keep doing.
The irony of this setup has not escaped me: the adjuncts who teach well despite the low pay and the lack of professional support may inspire in their students a similar passion—prompting them to be financially taken advantage of in turn. It strikes me as a grim perversion of the power of teaching.
That’s all for this week. Welcome to CASA’s new subscribers and contributors, and thanks to everyone for sharing these posts around your networks.
Karina & Kate
The submissions made to the Productivity Commission by the various VCs bodies involve a rewriting of history. When the issue of both of contract staff and casual staff was pursued by the NTEU in the HECE case (1990s), the employer body opposed regulation of both modes of employment. The Commission regulated contract employment but declined to regulate casual employment. When the NTEU attempted to regulate casual employment during the Howard government period, the HEWRRs provisions specifically prevented universities to agree to any regulation of modes of employment. When the subsequent Labor government abolished HEWRRS many Vice Chancellors (notably Fred Hilmer and Steven Swartz) opposed further regulation of casual employment via enterprise bargaining.
The NTEU, however, only really came to grips with the growing army of casual teaching only academics when it adopted its teaching scholar policy and pursued it with some success in the current round of enterprise bargaining.
Luv ya work!
Honorary Associate Professor John M O’Brien Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies The University of Sydney firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: 0417 433 645
NTEU History Project ________________________________
Hi John, welcome, and thanks for this comment. One of the most opaque parts of the situation for university casuals is this history of mostly unintended consequences rapidly converting into dependencies. It’s not the result of strategic planning, that’s for sure. But what’s interesting about the current submissions is that the impact of insecure work that has been deeply felt by casuals, PhD students and ECRs is now also being felt by institutions as insecure staffing. At one level it’s a help that we’re getting beyond the “keeping up appearances” stage, and developing some consensus around the idea that casualisation is a risk—even if there isn’t a shared sense of what exactly is at risk.
One way to frame this as a shared problem is the risk of sustainability. Faced with a whole range of external drivers for change, universities are gambling on the sustainability of their staffing; and individuals aren’t able to sustain themselves on casual employment. No one is doing well out of this.
But addressing the institutional problem of insecure staffing by marginally improving the conditions of insecure work is a very limited solution. If universities want to offer less secure work overall, and make greater use of short term hiring, the next step is for prospective research students to start taking this into account when considering PhD recruitment offers. When the chances of getting a solid job in a university having undertaken at minimum 7 years of training and having run up a substantial education debt start trending in the same direction as the chance of getting an ARC Discovery, we’re really in the territory of “why would you?” So these short term savings represent a kind of double jeopardy for institutions, as research student enrolment also impacts on rankings.