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CASA news 01/16

Hello, and welcome to the start of a new year of CASA news on casualisation in Australian higher education. This is a painful time for academic casuals trying to organise teaching contracts for the coming year, and we’re sending our good thoughts out to everyone in this fraught situation.

We ended last year having a think about why it’s so hard to find out in a concrete way what proportion of Australia’s university teaching, research, and administration is done by people who are in these short-term or hourly job contracts. One reason is that “proportion” is slippery. Proportion of what? There are solid arguments for looking at headcount (how many individual staff members are casually hired?), and equally strong institutional preferences for treating individual staff as fractions of a full-time equivalent position—especially as this results in a much more flattering number.

From a student perspective, the relevant question is hardest of all to answer: what proportion of direct teaching contact time in a specific course is likely to be delivered by casuals, and what impact do their working conditions have on the student experience? Are some disciplines more casualised than others? Why? Did students know whether the person teaching them was hired by the hour when they filled out a teaching survey? Why not?

This is not a conversation universities are keen to have with students, so we’re kicking off with this video from the #truenortheastern campaign by adjuncts at NorthEastern University in Boston, as it got us wondering what it would mean to Australian students to hear these kinds of stories about the people who are teaching them:

Adjuncts at Northeastern formed a collective bargaining unit with the SEIU in May 2014 and the resolution of their campaign (see useful campaign resources here), just ahead of planned strike action on January 19, has been widely interpreted as a win. They’ve won a pay increase, some access to healthcare subsidy that would have been required anyway, and compensation for courses that are cancelled at the last minute. Colleen Flaherty covers the campaign in detail for Inside Higher Ed and looks at other similar union-assisted campaigns that have won better pay and conditions for precarious college staff.

Many aspects of the US adjunct situation are different to the way Australian universities hire casual tutors in teaching teams coordinated by permanent academics; but as the delivery of entire subjects by casuals becomes more common here, the two situations are converging. It’s worth keeping an eye on these campaigns. The compensation for last minute cancellations would certainly sharpen the incentive for better planning by Australian universities.

And if you think it’s unreasonable to compensate for late cancellation, read this brutally candid post on leaving adjuncting by the Autosociologist:

See, that contract had been signed – one class for spring semester. Down from three, then two, but still with the one class I’d picked up at the neighboring school, we could afford daycare and we’d make it another semester.  Summers are always tough, but we’d cross that bridge later. First, food in the mouths for Winter and Spring, and bills and rent…  And after the contract was signed, we bought Christmas presents and I was settling in to my state of obliviousness just fine.  Why, I even got myself a couple of Christmas gifts – some sweaters from Target and matching Pjs for Christmas eve.

It was the last day of class – a Friday – and so it was my swan song.  I brought in donuts and was happily closing out the semester.  This last day is where I have one last moment to push the value of seeking empirical data and a variety of voices in order to understand all social phenomena.  At the very last minute of my first class (I had two in a row), I realized I hadn’t shown an amazing you tube video that a student had made for his class project.  I quickly went online, into my email to get the link he’d sent me, and there it was: subject – contract canceled.  I found the video, and dashed out of the room to catch my breath.  What the fuck?

I read the email again from the office computer.  Contract cancelled – I’m sorry – budget reasons.  So short, so sweet.  As if it was just a minor problem.  “Sorry.”

Read the whole thing.

The adjuncts who share their experience in the Northeastern videos bring up many other issues that aren’t resolved by their new contract, and that are common for academic casuals here. One of these is that academics without secure work who are trying to stay research active have no access to support to attend conferences or publish, even though they will often credit their home institutions when they do. Melonie Fullick writes at University Affairs about the need to rethink the career assumptions behind academic conference organisation and costing:

The problem (more so for those of us without a salary) is that in order to participate, we have to pay significant amounts of money. I’ve noticed that the assumed vulgarity of discussing money means there isn’t much talk about this issue of costs and privilege. So perhaps this post will be an airing of some dirty academic laundry.

Dirty laundry is also being aired in the UK as submissions are made to the government’s proposed teaching excellence framework. Writing in the Guardian, UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt argues that the goal of teaching excellence is at odds with the extensive use of casual staff. She also hints heavily that this is an issue that should concern both students and their families:

More than 100,000 teaching staff (more than half of the total), are in insecure employment. The lucky ones have one-year contracts, tens of thousands more are on hourly paid contracts and 20,000 on some form of zero-hours contract. This endemic casualisation, is, in the words of one lecturer I met last week, “higher education’s dirty secret”.

Does it matter that those who teach our children at university are likely to be employed on a term-by-term basis, often living from hand-to-mouth and with little access to facilities or training and professional development?

The answer to this kind of question often points to budgets as the reason that universities are obliged to staff courses that students have to take with casuals who don’t have to accept the work. John Warner argues in ‘The Adjunct Solution‘ that this set up is as unsustainable as it sounds. The solution isn’t for adjuncts to turn down the work, he says, but for universities to pay them properly. Focusing on the large humanities courses that are often compulsory for US students, he calls out the idea that this is their problem to solve:

without these faculty, there are institutions that would not reach the bare minimum threshold to be considered functioning. They are utterly dependent on these workers. There is no scenario under which they do not need people to do these jobs if they wish to remain universities. It should not require a massive, nearly unprecedented collective action of the exploited class to make progress on this front.

Why are we willing to accept a culture where people can work full-time and still not be paid a living wage?

And on that note, CASA’s fired up for 2016. We’re always delighted to have new writers join us, anonymously or not, so if you’d like to put out a post, just get in touch: casualcasa [at] gmail [dot] com, or holler at us on Twitter.

Thanks for sharing this around your networks.

@katemfd @acahacker

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About Kate Bowles

Education technology, shared governance and casualisation in Australian higher education

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