Welcome to a winter casserole of casualisation news for the mid semester break in Australia.
At the end of last week we joined the Research Whisperer, NTEU, CAPA and NAPU (Australian higher ed loves an acronym) in a busy and stimulating Twitter chat on the problems of insecure work across Australia’s universities. #securework will continue as an ongoing initiative to help casuals across Australia network and share experiences, so we’d be interested in comments from anyone who participated.
Friday’s #securework was painfully timely: many academic teaching casuals are still hanging on to hear about work that’s moments away from beginning, while research and professional contractors are looking ahead to the end of the year when the project money runs out. This week in an outstanding post The Smart Casual looked at the personal and family impact of this instability, that in turn affects the capacity of the sector to expect loyalty from their employees:
Work in the tertiary sector in Australia is indeed both incoherent and unpredictable. It makes no sense for casual and limited term contract employees to be loyal to the tertiary institutions they work for. … I know of higher education workers who have worked for even longer on back-to-back limited-term contracts, only to find out at the eleventh hour after all of those years of service, that they didn’t have a job to return to after Christmas.
#securework also coincided with a significant industrial judgment. In December 2014, Fair Work Australia approved the extended definition of eligibility that saw casuals with no current contract for future employment given a vote on the Enterprise Agreement at Swinburne. On Friday, the Federal Court overturned this approval.
Stephen Matchett, in his authoritative Campus Morning Mail, suggested on Friday that a decision in favour of the NTEU’s narrower definition of eligibility would be a blow to casuals everywhere. Unsurpisingly Andrew Dempster, Head of Corporate and Government Affairs at Swinburne, took the same line:
— Andrew Dempster (@admpstr) July 18, 2015
The NTEU in Victoria, on the other hand, celebrated a win over a “dodgy anti-Worker Agreement“:
Today’s decision by the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia categorically rejects the approach by Senior Management, and the acceptance of this “erroneous” approach by the Fair Work Commission.
The Federal Court has put beyond doubt that to vote on an Agreement, an employee must be employed at the time of the ballot. This means they must be ‘immediately’ employed at the time, not just at some time in the past year.
This isn’t just about Swinburne. Enterprise Agreements in all Australian universities are directly relevant to casuals, but the staff approval ballot is often scheduled with cavalier attention to the timing that determines their inclusion. Out of session voting also introduces the problem that even casuals who are eligible to vote will be near-impossible to contact.
The takeaway from all of this is that while institutions minimise the scale of of casualisation by counting in Full Time Equivalent (FTE) terms, it’s headcount that really counts at voting time. So if insecurely hired employees are at or near a majority in your institution, you can be sure that both management and unions are thinking hard about their potential as a voting bloc.
What’s happening elsewhere?
In the US, the weakening of tenure at the University of Wisconsin has been the subject of bitter public dispute. Without tenure, will scholars enjoy the freedom to speak out on controversial issues that might reflect poorly on their employers?
US adjuncts already have to face this risk, including those for whom adjuncting is a relatively positive experience, like Jenna Jorgensen. Here she is on the Conditionally Accepted blog:
The poor wages and job security aren’t quite so bad when adjuncting is viewed as something that a real-world professional does on the side in order to bring their experience into the classroom to benefit students. … On the flip side, though, the lack of job security that most adjuncts face makes it a bit scary to think and tweet outside the box. If tenured professors are facing more push-back when they exercise their academic freedom, what will happen to adjuncts when we do the same?
Defenders of tenure argue that it is so hard to achieve that it should be a form of job security beyond political or budgetary tinkering. One symptom of this degree of difficulty is the appearance of academic career coaches. Karen Kelsky, of The Professor is In, is one of the best known. Here’s how she views the “demoralized and downsized” US higher education system:
As you may or may not know, the academy is in a death-spiral. Permanent tenure line jobs are almost extinct, replaced with adjunct positions. 75% of university instructors are now contingent. No, that’s not just at community college and for-profit institutions. 75% of instructors are contingent at the very best universities in the land. The ones with ivy. And those who are adjuncts are paid Walmart wages. I don’t exaggerate. 25% of adjuncts are on public assistance. That’s how bad it is.
Here’s Sarah Kendzior on ‘The Paradoxical Success of The Professor Is In‘ in Chronicle Vitae:
The success of The Professor Is In is a symptom of a broader disease. The popularity of the service highlights many inadequacies of academia: absentee advisers, search committees who value conformity and superficial symbols of belonging, a pay-to-play job market where every decision comes at a cost. (It should be noted that Kelsky gives much of her advice for free on her website, making her clients’ willingness to pay a steep fee all the more remarkable.)
As the market tightens and graduate students scramble, The Professor Is In flourishes. Its truth will not set you free, but, provided you pay, it may open the door to the gilded cage.
Expect a response.
The problem for universities is that these conditions of employment are increasingly obvious, especially to those who spend some time getting first hand casual experience before they try for a full-time position. So there are now also career coaches for alternatives to academic employment. In the UK, first year PhD microbiologist Stewart Barker co-writes with Canada-based coach Jennifer Polk (From PhD to Life):
Unlike for my undergrad, throughout the start of my PhD I have collected so much negative information on academia, the career path I aspired to for so long. Where do I begin? Rampant mental health issues in academia, and a lack of people talking about it. Academics pushing themselves to breaking point. …Seemingly record-low rates of funding from research councils. Constant reminders of how few PhD students stay in academia, never mind how many actually get a post-doc. So even if I did get a job, funding is also difficult to acquire. Some very miserable academics: not enough time in the day, juggling teaching assessments with teaching, then some lab work, then paperwork; being rejected for grants; under pressure from their departments; staying late at work, working weekends, missing out on time with their families. Do I really want that lifestyle?
This is the question also asked on the excellent Research Whisperer blog this week by a guest writer thinking of leaving:
I have been a casual or sessional academic for more than two years now. I have been doing everything from teaching to research assistant and admin. I love teaching, but hate the work environment. So much so that I am seriously considering saying goodbye to academia. It feels like a Catch 22 from which I cannot escape. I see many senior academics toil away and, while most seem to enjoy dedicating their entire lives to research, this does not work for everyone.
Increasingly, think it may not work for me.
At the end of the #securework chat, we were asked on Twitter what it would take for universities to take casualisation as a serious problem, if the wellbeing of such a large number of their long-term employees isn’t enough.
The squandering of Australian research training should be.
Warm wishes to all, and thanks for sharing the news around. We welcome new writers, and as part of our site refresh we’re just putting together a new page on the kinds of things we’d love some help to cover. Give us a holler: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karina & Kate