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).
— 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.
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