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CASA news 02/16

It’s week 1 of the new academic year all over Australian higher education. Academic casuals are getting back to work, juggling timetables, searching for space in shared offices (if that) and wondering how to meet university-mandated requirements for high quality teaching that are based on the vanishing fiction of an academic career, conducted from an office with a computer and everything.

In The Australian, Kylar Loussikian reported on this under the startling headline “Research’s gain, teaching’s loss as casuals rule at universities“, which is really not the case because no one currently ruling Australia’s higher education system would accept the working conditions of its casual staff.

In February the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association released its commissioned PwC report into the future of the Australian higher education workforce, citing 2010 figures from the Grattan Institute’s 2014 Mapping Australian Higher Education report:

Universities continue to be a significant employer, with 116,000 individuals employed by universities on a full time or fixed-term contract basis, with 2010 figures showing an estimated additional 67,000 individuals employed as casual academics.

As it happens, the Grattan Institute uses Robyn May’s 2011 research based on superannuation data in Australian higher education, because they have the same problem as the rest of us: “official statistics contain only full-time equivalent numbers of casual staff.”

The AHEIA report bases a good deal of its sector insights on interviews and surveys with senior university leaders. 215 filled out its survey, and when asked what changes were likely to be necessary in higher education workforce, just over a quarter rated “greater reliance on a casual workforce” as one of the three most likely—although a valiant 12 hope that the future will see “lesser reliance on a casual workforce”.

What this means is that the majority of those with the most significant access to sector data, budget forecasts and labour market insights, still do not see casualisation as a top three issue either way. More than half think “tech-savvy” academics will fix most problems, and a huge majority (164) rank employee agility “to take on changing job roles” as the most likely shift to come.

Where does this leave the last reliable estimate (again, from 2010) of 67,000 casual academics who file in each year to teach Australia’s undergraduate students?

The AHEIA report has a number of recommendations:

  • greater use of casual adjunct roles to strengthen the bridge between university and industry (p34)
  • “career coherence” for casuals who “oscillate between industry and higher education” (p35)
  • performance management and reward extending to casuals “to ensure the quality of the student experience is upheld” (p35)
  • better tolerance for contract diversity, which turns out to mean that there could be some transition to long-term employment for “high potential casuals” (p37) or, on the other hand, more casualisation overall (p35)

None of these are unexpected. They frame the employers’ dilemma in relation to casualisation: that student experience and thus market reputation now depends heavily on the continued goodwill of a workforce that has taken on the highest level of education debt, to whom universities have shown the least loyalty in return.

Nonetheless Andrew Vann, AHEIA president, launched the report in The Australian with an upbeat message:

We have an exciting opportunity to shape different ideas of a higher education sector and a higher education workforce, where academics can specialise and are rewarded for strengths in academic management, teaching, industry engagement and research; where there is flexibility for people to move between industry and academic careers, or to blend them both; where casual staff are not treated as a means to balance the budget but recognised as a core part of the academic community.

It’s good to see this high level admission that casuals are used to balance budgets. But on the evidence of the report itself, and especially the responses to its survey questions, there is still a very wide gap between the normative assumptions of a workforce of staff pursuing academic careers—who just need to be more tech-savvy, more agile, or both—and the 67,000+ casuals without whose existing and very well-honed levels of agility and tech-savvy (not to mention BYO tech), the sector could not function at all.

And it’s going to be very hard to make casuals a core part of the academic community while systematically excluding them from the career privileges that define the experience of community for everyone else in the room. Asking casual staff to accept solidarity that comes in the form of recognition, without equitable access to stable continuing work or the most basic provisions of leave and superannuation parity, signals something that academic casuals should watch very closely: the evidence that higher education is rapidly coming to terms with the permanency of the casual staffing solution, and is willing to present it as a system feature, not a bug.

If AHEIA and its members are serious about the idea that casual staff could be recognised as the essential employees they already are, they could show this by promoting university casualisation openly to students, and not simply as a means of achieving industry outreach. Adjuncts dropping in from the professions have been used for too long to cover up reality of systemic casualisation of teaching, mostly undertaken by postgraduate students who believe they are building a career CV. And that’s the second step for AHEIA members: to be scrupulous in making the conditions of long-term casual academic employment core to the recruitment of postgraduate students.

We’ll see.

What’s happening elsewhere?

A couple of quick notes from the world of casualisation. The UK university employers association, UCEA, has submitted to the UK government’s green paper on higher education reform its view that casualisation is a “small problem”, prompting this response from the UCU:

UCEA and others also say that forcing universities to publish what proportion of their teaching staff have secure jobs would have a negative impact on quality since it would place universities who use visiting lecturers with outside experience at a disadvantage.

I believe this is a wilful misrepresentation of the truth. By UCU’s count there are more than 100,000 university teachers in the UK who do not have a secure contract.

In many institutions, this hidden, insecure army is what delivers the bulk of undergraduate teaching. The vast majority are not visiting lecturers ‘popping in’ to share their experiences and they deserve the employer’s gratitude rather than to be swept under the carpet or belittled as a minor or small problem.

Warm thanks to Melonie Fullick for including CASA in her excellent write-up of the Confronting Precarious Academic Work conference in Canada. It’s a long post and a great read, so here we’re just going to single out a point that doesn’t get made often:

I think the discussion about administrators in higher education could be more nuanced. Maybe it’s not the best idea to assume that everyone working in administration is “badmin” and that if a faculty member takes an administrative role, they’ve “gone to the dark side.” Administrators are often seen as adversaries because they’re the ones making the decisions we disagree with. But many of those working in administration are just as frustrated about this situation as faculty and students are.

Speaking of administrators, Jesse Stommel, Executive Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at University of Mary Washington, is a long-term ally of adjuncts working in the US. This week he has written a really thoughtful post about the need for universities to place more value on teaching, including by providing teaching development for free as a normal part of postgraduate training:

Adjunct teachers must no longer be required to attend unpaid required job training, as they are by many institutions. Any required training should be subsidized. Kathi Inman Berens takes this one step further to say, “Don’t just make tools freely available. Pay adjuncts and other teaching-only faculty for their *time* to learn them.”

The problem that he acknowledges in his post is the same as the dilemma hinted at in the AHEIA report: how to improve the experience of casualisation without transforming the fundamental benefit that it offers universities, which is cheap, seasonal labour. So on the one hand, he suggests, graduate programs should prepare college teachers to teach, and if 75% of the profession is casualised, this means actively training college teachers for the adjunct track. On the other, colleges should train graduate students to “to resist the increasing adjunctification of higher education.”

Can we have both, or is this just a way for securely hired university staff to feel better about the deal that their casual colleagues are forced to accept? And if not, what other options are there for building a future workforce that we can all live with?

Have a good week everyone, and thanks for sharing this around. Apologies for the gap between news bulletins, and the length of this but we’ve both been away from our posts.

Karina & Kate




About Kate Bowles

Now blogging over at musicfordeckchairs.com


2 thoughts on “CASA news 02/16

  1. Thanks for this informative post, and the links contained within it.
    When I read the first lines: “It’s week 1 of the new academic year all over Australian higher education. Academic casuals are getting back to work,”, all I could think of was the fraudulence I feel right now which is combined with absolute frustration that again I was offered jobs at the last minute (thank you to my special few colleagues who believe in me), that I am full of worry, anxiety and fear about ‘proving myself’ all over again; that I must not complain and I must work far more hours than what I’m being paid in order to live up to my promise and obligation. And then go through it all again at the end of this semester. And just briefly, my guilt at having had a ‘holiday’, reading books for pleasure, enjoying my children’s company, and not having written any of those articles I ‘should’ have. Oh my, here we go again.

    Posted by Annabelle Leve | March 2, 2016, 12:23 pm

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