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CASA weekly news 14/15

Hello, and a springlike welcome back to CASA news.

Australian readers will know it’s been an exciting time in Federal politics. We have a new Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, while Christopher Pyne has relocated to the also relevant Ministry of Industry, Innovation and Science. Universities Australia welcomed the new Ministry. The Regional Unversities Network welcomed the new Ministry. The Group of Eight welcomed the new Ministry. (The ALP released its higher education policy and the NTEU welcomed that.)

These generalisations and formalities give a sense of how likely it is that casualisation will be recognised as a problem rather than a business solution, any time soon. On the evidence so far, with the strong emphasis on funding for innovation, research and improved industry linkages, and the continuing vagueness about how it is that universities are staffed, it looks as though the issue is still stuck under the political and media radar in Australia.

The NTEU continue to shoulder the work of keeping casualisation visible—most recently at their Melbourne Expert Seminar on managing academic workloads, which you can review at #NTEUexpert. You can find us in a couple of places in this month’s issue of Connect magazine, thanks to Jen T. Kwok and Jeannie Rea who invited us to write about a testy social media exchange we got into about free postgraduate union membership, and why academic casuals might not find union membership relevant or valuable.

Last week attendees at the annual conference of the Deans of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities saw at least one slide on casualisation.

This data is from the Australian Academy for the Humanities report on Mapping the Humanities Arts and Social Sciences, released in November last year, and revisited by DASSH. This report is detailed on staffing, and blunt on casualisation in particular, noting the sharp turn to “a growing cohort of casual or part-time teachers, predominantly women, as a means of working within tight budgets leading to limited career opportunities and a stalling of career paths for junior academics.” The report also admits that in a sector in which just about every blade of grass that grows on a campus is counted, we still seem unable to measure the extent or rate of growth of casualisation in terms that don’t contribute to making the problem more complicated to understand.

The other major release, just before all this excitement, is the national QILT (Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching) dashboard, maintained by the ANU Social Research Centre for the Department of Education and Training. Its aim is to give prospective students quick and easy access to the data universities already collect on the student experience and graduate employment outcomes.

We’ve argued for a while that it’s relevant to treat casualisation as an institutional quality measure. This isn’t about questioning the quality of casual teachers’ commitment or capability, but about the factors that quality indicators usefully bring to the surface: time spent on feedback, and access to teaching staff. Both are recognised as key to the student experience, and yet these are the two areas in which institutions are furiously cost-cutting as they casualise their teaching.

Here, for example, are the good teaching indicators from the Course Experience Questionnaire, one of the four major surveys behind the QILT dashboard:

  1. The staff put a lot of time into commenting on my work.
  2. The teaching staff normally gave me helpful feedback on how I was going.
  3. The teaching staff of this course motivated me to do my best work.
  4. My lecturers were extremely good at explaining things.
  5. The teaching staff worked hard to make their studies interesting.
  6. The staff made a real effort to understand difficulties I might be having with my work.

Nothing on this list anticipates a casualised academic workforce. In fact, experienced academic casuals will be rolling their eyes at the assumptions and contradictions here. These are exactly the good practices that are ruled out by piecemeal marking rates, lack of allocated consultation time or space, and tutoring roles that allow for little input into curriculum. In fact, it’s closer to the truth that academic casuals are already making a real effort and working hard while giving a lot of unpaid time to compensate students for the cost-cutting that their hiring represents, and that they are actively discouraged from revealing their own employment status and working conditions in order to explain these constraints to students.

So it’s to be hoped that as well as helping students and their families, QILT will give a forceful nudge to universities to recognise casualisation as a major weakness that they have introduced into their own key performance indicators.

What’s happening elsewhere?

Just a couple of quick links from the rest of the world. FACE (Fighting Against Casualisation in Education) are a network of anti-casualisation activists across UK higher education, and they’ve just held their second open meeting. Their work has been featured in the Times Higher Ed, and FACE writer Jack Saunders has a great piece cross-posted at the Impact of Social Sciences blog looking at precarious academic employment in the context of other changes to higher education, and to the wider economy.

In the US, Carolyn Frederickson’s major piece for The Atlantic on the treatment of contingent academic labour suggests that contingency in higher education diverges from the outsourcing and casualisation in other sectors, and agrees that the working conditions of US adjuncts shortchange both teachers and their students.

The US Government also just released its own student-facing indicators dashboard, the College Scorecard, and again the composition of the academic labour force isn’t yet a frontline concern that anyone can admit to. But with the sustained mainstream media attention on adjunct lives, and more questions being asked about the relative value of college education in relation to cost and debt, surely this will have to shift.

Finally, in an excellent post for University Affairs Melonie Fullick takes a hard look at the way PhD students navigate the hidden curriculum of higher degree career preparation, as they are implicitly coached to treat the deteriorating state of the academic labour market as a matter of their own success or failure:

Even the fuzzy numbers we have on PhD employment in Canada tell us fairly clearly that there aren’t enough tenure-track positions opening up for the number of PhDs who want them. And yet a foundational element in academic culture, one that drives many people’s interpretations of their own performance, is the assumption of meritocracy. Whatever the outcome, students who “failed” ultimately lacked merit, and they must have (consciously or unconsciously) been responsible for their lack of success.

That’s it from us. Have a good week everyone, and thanks so much for sharing this post around your networks. We have some new writers and projects coming up for CASA, and we’re looking forward to getting back to a more regular news service.

If there’s something you’d like us to look into, or you’d like to write with us, we’re at casualcasa at gmail.

Karina & Kate

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

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