Ahead of this week’s news, a quick report from the BLASST (Benchmarking Leadership and Advancement of Standards for Sessional Teaching) 2015 summit, held at Macquarie University. We were invited along with Katie Freund (@katiedigc), and Jen T. Kwok (@unicasual) from the NTEU, to talk about social media as a community of practice for academic casuals. Check out the Twitter feed from the day at #BLASST2015.
BLASST is a cross-institutional project that was originally funded and then extended by the Australian Government’s Office of Learning and Teaching, and its work has expanded into a 2014 OLT National Fellowship project for its leader, Dr Marina Harvey. The summary of Marina’s Fellowship project encapsulates this proactive approach to casualisation as a problem of implementation that can be addressed with good practice:
The majority of teaching in Australian universities is undertaken by sessional staff yet these staff have been at the periphery of learning and teaching plans. This fellowship will address the issue of systematising good practice for learning and teaching with sessional staff through the implementation and embedding of national standards.
The most difficult question came early in the day from Macquarie delegate Cathy Rytmeister:
— Cathy Rytmeister (@CateyR) April 10, 2015
The many, many charts presented at the Insecure Work conference in Hobart last year made clear that we have reached the tipping point: the majority of Australia’s higher education workers are now casually hired. (Yet again, a huge cheer to Robyn May for her forensic work in filtering this data out of the institutional weeds where it has been hidden.)
The BLASST Summit took a further step, in proposing this as a new paradigm for Australian higher education that is unlikely to reverse in the future. So we’re no longer waiting for the Baby Boomer retirements, or the budget recovery, or the change of government, or the tooth fairy. As both Jillian Hamilton and Gail Crimmins argued in their keynotes, the ideal of secure, full-time, permanent, academic employment balancing both research and teaching will be a minority experience in the future. Gail Crimmins in particular made a very strong case that this “antiquated form” of employment should no longer be the basis on which we manage the staff experience in our universities. And Carolyn Barker AM, from the Endeavour College of Natural Health (75 permanent staff, 250 sessional staff) cut through any lingering nostalgia with this bracing summary:
Essentially, sessional staff represent our brand in the classroom. It is their connection to the institution and their belief in the connection that ensures that brand does not deteriorate.
Universities won’t admit to this view because the language is uncomfortable. But the projects showcased yesterday revealed their strategic acceptance of this path: government and universities are actively supporting HR and professional development projects that anticipate long-term casualisation of university teaching, and focus on better handling of this risk. This reflects the adjustment of TEQSA’s calculations away from hinting that casualisation could be “excessive”, towards an expectation that majority casualisation of university teaching can be properly managed and performed with robust procedures and a positive attitude.
And why not? This is how many retail, service and other government sectors already work, including critical services. Life in the precariat isn’t confined to universities and colleges, nor is it clear that higher education workers deserve special protection.
On the other hand, it’s hard to think of other types of casual employment that expect a postgraduate level of education and can increasingly select from among PhD qualified applicants; that treat time on the clock as such a modest proportion of the true working hours; and that are so widely believed to be stepping stones to permanent jobs that this misapprehension starts to look like fraud.
The projects celebrated yesterday were terrific. Universities all over Australia are thinking of imaginative, cost effective ways to make the daily academic casual teaching experience less awful. We heard about subsidised car parking, mentoring schemes, timely access to IT systems, procedural rigour replacing favouritism in hiring, and even access (in principle) to long service leave. We heard about training, and a scaffolded pathway of professional development that leads to the “career-ready CV”. But here’s the phrase that we should really pay attention to: “sessional career”.
Think about it.
There are some big questions left unanswered by these initiatives. Career readiness is great, but what are the realistic prospects of career availability, so long as universities are able to get the majority of their teaching done on the cheap, by those stuck on the sessional career track? What data can these projects show on sustainable career and secure job placement as the result of their work? We were told this is hard to track, despite the fact that universities are ablaze with data and obsessive about outcomes, especially in relation to the success of their own (under)graduate programs.
To be blunt, any data that universities aren’t tracking is data that universities don’t want to know.
Secondly, if the casualisation of university teaching is now the norm, is this clearly understood by the people who have most influence over potential PhD recruitment—securely employed academics? When an undergraduate student first starts to wonder about a PhD, who gives them a candid evaluation of the academic labour market in Australia and worldwide? Both PhD students and their supervisors need to get on the same page about this quickly: the job market is really tough as it is, and our universities are now actively bedding down a very different model of academic employment than the one most supervisors have experienced. Who is best placed to advise on PhD recruitment? Maybe it’s time to ask the PhDs working as long-term casuals.
The fact that universities aren’t turning to their teaching (and research) casual staff for insights is part of the third unanswered question. If universities are so committed to recognising, rewarding and valuing the contribution of their casual workforce, why are they so economical with the truth when it comes to advertising this majority workforce to undergraduates and their families? Why across all university marketing do we still get the impression that universities are majority staffed by full-time permanently-employed research and teaching academics, if that’s no longer the case?
And the fourth question: as universities start to talk frankly about casual staff turnover as a risk and casual teaching staff loyalty as a strategic objective, what are the human costs of being stuck at the other end of the bargain? The solution to the institutional problem of staff turnover is the human problem of long-term casual work. For Australia’s academic teaching and research casuals this refracts into problems of unpaid education debt and critically insufficient superannuation; long-term casual work in universities actively raises the cost of getting educated in the first place, and then increases the risk of serious financial stress at retirement age. (For a compelling look at how this affects individuals, check out Gail Crimmins’ beautiful verbatim theatre project, based on her collaborative research into the lived experience of women casual academics.)
Institutional programs that motivate, reward, support and encourage are great. They deliver institutional quality assurance by the truckload. But they don’t create sustainable careers, and they don’t pay the rent. Meanwhile, the really serious harm from long-term casual employment lies well beyond their horizon of enthusiasm. It would be good, truly, to see the next round of BLASST prize-winners offering programs of support for alt-ac career development, impartial financial counselling, and education directed towards the minority of permanent academics about the career realities facing PhD students.
Meantime, thanks for having us at BLASST 2015, and for all the difficult conversations about the limits of anger in the new normal.