you're reading...
International, News

CASA news 03/16

Hello, and welcome to the latest roundup of news on casualisation in Australian universities, and worldwide. This week, we’re in our business suits, thinking about the cost and sustainability of casual staffing.

At the beginning of March, the Universities Australia 2016 (#uaconf) marked a third year of CASA, and a return to what’s become our annual festival of exasperation and hope that the sector leadership is thinking about casualisastion as an issue, let alone a risk. We followed the conference hashtag, and jumped in from time to time when we could chew on our pencils no longer. While the conference mostly steered its usual discreet path around the swamp, sector predictions of increasing casualisation were aired and simultaneously overlooked as the conference discussed the AHEIA report on university staffing:

As the blurry image shows, the slide in fact included the top five predictions for future workforce transformation, and there it is, right after agility, flexibility, professionalisation and specialisation: “greater reliance on a casual workforce”.

Even when it’s up on a giant screen, it’s apparently too hard to see.

Warm thanks to those in the room who shared their time on Twitter, especially Marina Harvey, Marnie Hughes Warrington and Andrew Vann, who raised and retweeted difficult questions about casualisation, for which Uberisation is the emerging euphemism.

When thoughts turn to Uber, it’s worth noticing that the case for Uberisation is typically made on the benefits to the consumer. Less is said when the consumer is also the contractor. So as a postscript we’re still curious to know more about the lanyard sponsorship of this event from UK higher education temp agency Unitemps.

Unitemps is a franchise operation with a stated focus on better managing the experience of students gaining degree-relevant casual jobs in professional, admin and technical roles on campuses and for other local companies while, as one franchisee puts in in their promotional video, controlling “the internal casual spend“. Unitemps are deploying students in “ambassadorial roles” as well as hiring students in internal “academic and research roles” and hiring them out in external “internships”. This is having a “demonstrable impact on the student experience”, and not only there:

By using our own students to do jobs internally, to provide those opportunities, to look differently at how we operate, has meant that we spend less on external agencies and has actually saved some money for the university.

All these quotes are from the franchisee testimonial video, which is refreshingly frank, and sounds like it was recorded in a shipping container.

Unitemps was launched by the University of Warwick and now has franchise operations in 13 UK universities. Thanks to the CASA reader who pointed out that Warwick University Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd was incorporated on 30 November 2015 (Monday) and as of 14 March 2016 (Monday) is a Registered Australian Private Company. That’s a space to watch.

Thanks also to CASA readers Melonie Fullick and Claire Brooks, we were alerted this week to increasing movement against casual and zero-hour contracts, first over the pond and then, right here.

What’s happening elsewhere?

This week Sally Hunt, of the UK’s University and College Union, put forward a robust proposition that universities should be more open about casual staffing, making three really sensible recommendations:

The first is that universities publish the proportion of their teaching staff in each department who are permanent; who have contracts of two years or less; and who are employed on a casual basis. The second is that universities publish what proportion of undergraduate classes in each department are provided by each of the three groups. The third suggestion is that universities publish the basis upon which they employ and reward casual staff, and whether they meet minimum standards for paid hours, professional development, scholarship time and of course paid contact time with students.

This is a direct request for the measure that Australia avoids measuring at all: what proportion of teaching is provided by people on different contract levels, by discipline and division. By focusing instead on the proportion of staff and then getting stuck in a debate over headcount or FTE, Australian universities have so far managed to dodge the issue by insinuating that anyone who wants to know is disrespecting the capability and quality of casual staff. It’s refreshing to see the UCU get stuck in on this as a quality issue.

Meanwhile in the US, a substantial article in Inside Higher Ed by Colleen Flaherty, a regular commentator on adjunct issues, covers fairly new research by Jason Brennan and Phil Magness, ‘Estimating the Cost of Justice for Adjuncts: a Case Study in University Business Ethics‘. Brennan and Magness are well known for being unconvinced by adjunct claims that there is budget capacity to hire fairly. Their paper models the cost of converting adjunct positions to full-time permanent (in other words, tenure track) hires, and concludes from this that while some could be converted to secure employment, this would be at the significant cost of livelihood to others.

It’s worth reading the comments in full to get a sense of the difficulty in the US of developing economic modelling based on institutionally reported data when adjuncts working across multiple institutions are so common. The authors’ response, echoed by their supporters, is that adjuncts who are unsatisfied with the business logic of this model are free to leave. (There’s a feisty response at Gawker, currently facing some money worries of its own.)

The fact that casualisation isn’t easy to solve doesn’t justify complacency at the current situation, and certainly doesn’t justify the fact that job market advice to new PhD recruits continues to be so patchy at the point of sale. Given universities’ continual reliance on PhD student recruitment for other reasons, the job market problem is increasingly being addressed by imagining the PhD as the professional pathway to other kinds of careers. This is reflected in the extension of professional training in PhD programs, but the reality is that so long as research student enrolments are measured by university rankings schemes, and advanced research training is considered a contributor to the national innovation economy, PhD students remain at risk of exploitation.

In Canada, university governance researcher Melonie Fullick has a new blog up at University Affairs, questioning the call for more PhDs as an innovation measure. She is cautious of the argument that PhDs are a talent pool and says that universities should focus on supporting already enrolled PhDs to complete. At the other end of the metaphor, Kelly J Baker looks at PhD completion as a form of talent waste. She picks up on Marc Bousquet’s argument that PhD students are hired to deliver graduate teaching on the cheap, and discarded when they graduate:

The doctorate becomes not the beginning of an academic career, but the end of one. Ph.D. holders, Bousquet explains, are “the actual shit of the system — being churned inexorably outside: not merely disposable labor but labor that must be disposed of for the system to work.”

Let that sink in: Ph.D.s are academic waste. I’m academic waste flushed out of an academic labor system that I was naïve enough to trust.

To try to understand the costs of casualisation to universities, data on this business waste is as relevant as the data on who works in universities, and on what contractual basis. What is the cost to the innovation economy of training the most able graduates for a career that no longer seems to exist? And what is the risk to the sustainability of the system itself?

Thanks everyone for sharing this around, and good luck this week.

Karina and Kate



About Karina

Living and working in the Sydney, Australia suburbs.



  1. Pingback: CASA news 04/16 | CASA - May 16, 2016

We welcome your thoughts (update: oldest comments now appear first!)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: