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Events, Research

The new normal

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:

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.


About Kate Bowles

Now blogging over at musicfordeckchairs.com


9 thoughts on “The new normal

  1. Hi, thanks for this post and your points are interesting in terms of development, recognition, etc for casual/sessional staff. I just have a couple of ‘devil’s advocate’ questions! Firstly, I am wondering what are the legal obligations for universities in terms of *not* telling prospective students (undergrad especially) that the majority of teaching is done by sessionals/casual staff? I think this is really the elephant in the room, because much of the PR work – open days, school visits, etc – around selling a particular degree program involves tenured staff (or it did at my previous uni) so this is what students and their families expect. When students arrive on campus and their primary teaching support (ie sessional staff) are constrained by lack of office space, parking fees, unpaid work time (and I mean this in empathy, have been there myself) it has an implication for the university itself, not just in terms of image, but also their legal responsibility. They are misrepresenting their service/product. Therefore, logically, it would be in these institutions’ interests to be providing all these services (parking, office space, computer access, paid support time, etc) for their contract labour, to ensure that the consumers (ie students) can receive their expected support services.

    Secondly, and slightly off-track, I have real concerns about the current degree promotions from universities – it’s unsustainable and I think the bubble is going to blow up. Producing PhDs without explaining the reality of academic job prospects is one thing, but there is also the issue of admitting huge numbers of undergraduate students into courses where there are limited job opportunities at graduation, and where not all students will find their way into their preferred job market. Therefore, isn’t this also another legal obligation upon academic institutions to ensure that they have some responsibility for the future job market-labour balance? As casual academics, we see it most evidently in our lives in academia, but this is a future labour issue also – qualification creep for basic entry level positions and over-supply of graduates. Where are the moral, ethical and legal responsiblities of higher ed institutions? I have yet to see a VC discuss this issue in some realistic way, other than from their own corporate, fiscal and self-promoting ideals.

    Just curious whether anyone else has ideas on this, or is the system so broken that these are now non-issues?

    Posted by Mandalay | April 12, 2015, 12:11 pm
    • These are absolutely the right questions. The very problematic management of the “sessional career” pipeline is part of the broader issue of the kinds of work available to Australian graduates. We keep hearing that graduates earn a million dollars more than non graduates, but this is based on some reasonably selective averaging, and it’s not predictive of what will happen as the labour market unbundles itself into the precariat and the few. And the “truth in advertising” problem is one that universities will surely have to confront. Adjunct activism in the US has raised mainstream media awareness of their new normal, and the image of college professors on foodstamps has become a significant part of a conversation about their higher education system being broken. Is this what we want in Australia?

      For me the really big question raised by the conversations at BLASST is that if we accept a two-tier profession is the best thing for institutional planning, and then continue to keep most people below decks, who would choose the journey? As the Research Whisperer put it recently: “If you are highly educated and highly skilled, and you are being paid by the hour, then getting out should be your first priority – heartbreaking though that might be.”

      Posted by Kate Bowles | April 12, 2015, 3:56 pm
      • Hi Kate, yes, I agree absolutely in relation to who on earth, given the facts around academic employment opportunity, would do a PhD!! And then the institutional implications if the universities’ (very significant) labour pool of sessionals disappear. I struggle at times with the ‘why do a degree’ question and keep coming back to a number of issues. Universities have to be labour-market relevant, which means that graduates need real-life skillsets. So in some ways, unis need to become extended TAFEs as employers seek grads with readily deployable skillsets (e.g. capacity not just to write in legible sentences but also to convert it into digital media content). In turn, many of the students I have met want to talk with people who have worked outside academia and how this relates to their degree program, potential employment pathway – yet many (tenured) academics do not have this. So is the answer a new type of academic career, where – after undergrad years – it is an expectation that potential PhDs get that professional exposure before re-entering academia for further study? I do think that the two tier system will implode at some point, and that the universities will suffer, particularly when the number of PhDs on unemployment benefits starts getting noticed in the media.

        Posted by Mandalay | April 12, 2015, 4:57 pm
  2. pinned over on the precarious faculty FB page (CASA is already syndicated to the page) and will re-blog on the NME page (also syndicated) in a day or so to repeat post (such are social media attention spans). this needs repeating. I expect a deep denial reaction but hope to be wrong.

    Posted by VanessaVaile | April 12, 2015, 3:21 pm
  3. The title of Kate Bowles’ post – “The new normal” – says it all. This is where we are now with the majority of university teaching being done by casually employed academics. Despite consistent efforts by the NTEU to avert this through industrial means over many years including conversion clauses, limits to casual and fixed term contracts, and increasing the costs of employing casual staff through base rates, loadings and additional payments, for example for marking, the reality is that university teaching has been casualised. For undergraduate students, the reality that their tutors and even lecturers are employed by the hour and do massive unpaid hours provides no incentive to pursue more than the first qualification that will get them a job – outside of universities.
    Whilst the efforts of the BLASST project, and other initiatives to improve the “sessional experience” outlined at last week’s summit, are generally admirable, the reality is that they are all adding to, as Kate observes, institutionalising the “sessional career”.
    This is not the road we want to go down. The two tier academic career characterises the North American system where the hard division between the “tenured” and the “adjunct” has relegated most academics to a precarious and poverty stricken existence. They labour over this work while the tenured and tenure-track academics can pursue research and scholarly work, ever widening the gap. Adjunct numbers have blown out in the last decades as universities and colleges cut teaching budgets. Increasingly fewer new jobs are tenure-track and old jobs are made adjunct. This is what has happened in Australia. While the North American system was always two tier it was not weighted so dangerously in favour of precarious work. Casualising teaching is a university management financial decision.
    North American precarious academic staff are now organising because the dream of an academic career has turned to a nightmare of ad hoc work. Unions representing largely tenured staff are seeing the same issues as trade unions everywhere, that their numbers are dwindling as secure jobs disappear. There is also a history in North America of organising insecure academic workers within the same and also separate unions. They have been successful in improving wages and conditions, but not in winning conversion to permanent positions or creating more secure jobs. They have assisted in improving the industrial conditions for a “sessional career”.
    This has always been the NTEU’s challenge – to advocate for improved wages and conditions for those currently sessionally employed, AND ALSO to create more secure jobs enabling academic careers.
    The reality is that our university managements are much keener to institutionalise “sessional (they don’t like the term ‘casual’) careers”, and to try and avoid the reputational damage that casualised teaching is causing. The actual impact upon the students and upon the casual academics themselves is low down on their priority list. We have to change that.

    Posted by Jeannie Rea, NTEU National President | April 13, 2015, 3:18 pm


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