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All sides

We started CASA in 2014 as independent writers—one casually employed, one on a permanent academic contract—as an irked response to the Universities Australia annual conference, which was staring into the future of higher education and apparently failing to notice casualisation at all.

We each saw this peculiar blindness as a sector problem, and we weren’t alone. There were already researchers tackling it with data, like Robyn May, and others like Gail Crimmins who were revealing the personal experience of academics trapped in casual employment. The two highest profile Australian group blogs (Thesis Whisperer and Research Whisperer) each had a focus on the lived experience of students and academics hoping to forge careers in this very difficult job market, and both had managed to spot casualisation of academic work as an entrenched and worsening problem.

We had also been following the conversation in the US, Canada and the UK, where in each case there are different relations to academic and other unions. Noticeably in the US we have seen a campaign to achieve the kind of union presence that in Australia we can take for granted, often locally supported by non-university labour organisations such as the SIEU. But we could also see that in higher education systems such as in the UK, academics hired casually might not belong to the legacy academic unions for a range of obvious reasons.

We’re both NTEU members, so we were connected with @unicasual on Twitter, and followed NTEU publications aimed at understanding the experience of academics employed casually. We reached out to the NTEU to let them know what we were up to, and explained that we were committed to creating an independent platform for university staff employed casually, but without compromising, duplicating or confusing what was already being done.

Two years on, that’s where we still sit. We’ve been invited to speak to NTEU events—but also to OLT funded events. We’ve contributed opinions to NTEU publications—but we’ve also been interviewed by The Australian and mentioned in Stephen Matchett’s daily despatches.

And occasionally we’ve needed to correct people who assumed that CASA is some kind of NTEU front. Anybody who directly approaches us about this gets a full earful about why it matters in Australian higher education that there is an unaffiliated forum for the individual, human stories of the impact of casualisation right across the sector.

We really believe this, and so we’ve been working to encourage and publish posts by academic and professional staff casually hired, those working in continuing roles, and those working at the highest level of our institutions. In 2014 CSU Vice Chancellor Andrew Vann contributed a generous, reflective piece about casualisation as a difficult conversation we have to have, and in 2016 we hope to have some more pieces from our colleagues who work in senior decision-making roles.

No one can address this challenge working alone or from one perspective only—it’s going to take extraordinary commitment and care even to see the problem, let alone measure it and set some targets for sustainable jobs worth working in.

So we’re now going to offer polite correction to the recently released LH Martin Institute report* into contingent academic employment in Australian universities. Andrew Vann’s CASA post is cited on page 16 of the report in the passage below (highlight added), and misrecognised as a comment response “to a union blog”:

The operation and supervision of the casual labour force (including hiring, firing, management and quality assurance) involves costs and a level of activity largely hidden from senior university managers, given the devolution of budgetary and hiring responsibilities to academic units. It is important to gain a better understanding of the direct and indirect costs of casual employment, as well as the impact of casualization on the quality and productivity of the Australian academic workforce.

As one Vice-Chancellor commented when responding to a union blog on the use of casual employment by universities

I think we do have a problem and it is time to take a pause. Firstly, we do need to question whether the system overall is delivering outcomes that work for the participants. We need to stop and remember that casual staff are human beings. We need systems that allow them to plan their lives and get some certainty about career direction. We need to make sure that schools don’t only discover their requirements at the last minute and we need to ensure we communicate effectively and make casual staff feel a genuine part of the academic community…6

Certainly, the solutions are neither clear nor easy.

OK then, but no.

Certain things would be so much easier if CASA were a union blog. Here are a few.

The NTEU is one of the organisations taking casualisation in Australian higher education seriously (the OLT being another). Sector and institutional leaders can hardly say the word, let alone discuss the issue. We’d love to work in an organisation that thinks casualisation is important, and with direct access to the data that their researchers have been able to collect.

If we were a union blog, this would be our day job. We’re two independent volunteers managing careers and lives and family commitments in Australia’s underresourced higher education system. And if we were a union blog, we wouldn’t be cautious about identifying where we each work in case our present employment comes unstuck.

There also reasons we can’t be a union blog. The most obvious is that the NTEU already does that job. It’s a powerful voice, resourced to generating research and publications of its own.

But importantly, so many academics and professional staff working casually aren’t union members—for a wide range of reasons. We believe it’s important then to maintain an independent platform for robust and sometimes awkward conversation about casualisation that will include discussion on the benefits of unionisation and other forms of collective action for those who don’t fit the imagined typical university staff profile (despite being in the majority of people that actually work in universities).

As an independent platform, we are committed to hearing from all sides, beyond what is increasingly set up as a series of confrontations and stand-offs between universities and unions (and this is exactly how the problem is framed in the L H Martin report, with each side getting a section to themselves.)

We’re not convinced that transformation of the current dismal situation will be achieved without contributions and creative suggestions from all sides, and especially, without hearing from all those who don’t feel that either universities or unions fully understand the complexity of their difficult position. As things stand, academics and professional staff hired casually only have the option to walk away, and the universities who have hired and trained them, and who can’t function without them, have no choice but to accept this risk in search of reduced staffing overheads. Unions have to balance the effort to win better protections for permanent staff while at the same time finding ways to lobby for the large and growing casual workforce, who are hard to find in the staff directory, let alone organise and represent.

All sides are stuck.

We know there are no easy solutions. Perhaps there aren’t any solutions at all. As independent activists, we can say that openly. And still keep going.

Kate and Karina

*UPDATE: We’re really delighted to say that not only did the LH Martin Institute respond quickly to our online enquiries, they revised and updated this particular section, and reissued the full document within days. You can find the updated version of the report here.



About Karina

Living and working in the Sydney, Australia suburbs.


12 thoughts on “All sides

  1. Hi Karina

    CASA is most certainly not a union blog – your independence is what makes your voice powerful and diverse. As NTEU National President I learn from reading the blog and from my conversations with participants when I want to pursue a matter raised. This is a grubby attempt to pretend that all casual voices are a union front and dismiss the seriousness of the union’s and CASA’s commitment to improving the situation of casual academics in the our universities and increase more secure employment – and organising casualised academics to speak out.

    Keep up the fabulous work
    In solidarity

    Posted by Jeannie Rea | April 21, 2016, 10:03 am
    • Jeannie, thanks so much for coming by to comment. Much appreciated. And yes, the tendency to paint anyone with an objection to casualisation as a union shill isn’t going to help us all figure out how to progress. We’ve consistently argued that universities can’t afford casualisation either, and that this conversation must engage widely.

      If casualisation was considered a good thing in higher education, we’d be marketing the pants off it. But it’s being covered up institutionally because it would be really difficult to persuade people they need a 3-4 year qualification (on top of an undergraduate degree) to qualify for long term hourly paid work, chronically reduced superannuation, no resources, and invisibility amongst colleagues.

      This would be a hard career plan to sell.

      Posted by Kate Bowles | April 21, 2016, 8:12 pm
      • Thanks for identifying the mistake in our discussion paper, as well as contributing to the discussion on contingent academic employment. As noted, we updated the paper as soon as we knew of the error. As one of the authors of the paper, I am sorry for the mistake and its implications, but it was an honest mistake.

        More broadly, I don’t think our paper deliberately paints the picture as a “series of confrontations and stand-offs” between the NTEU and universities. At least that is not my perspective. The scholarly teaching fellow (STF) and similar EBA clauses are indicative of constructive outcomes, albeit ones which are currently too limited to address the scale of casualisation. But there is at least some hope that we can have evidence that STF positions offer the university better student learning outcomes than casual positions.

        Posted by Peter Bentley | June 1, 2016, 4:07 pm
  2. Yes, thank you CASA for doing what you do against the rising tide of casualisation. As the years go by, and I get far better at my job as a casual academic, I feel that my value to the organisation I work for increases – but that I can do with it what I will. Being sick of missing out on job applications to the younger and fresher varieties, the ‘opportunities’ I read in job applications become increasingly uninspiring – almost ‘death by tenure’ from what I see around me. I have less and less desire to beat my head against that wall.

    Attending a meeting with a bunch of newly recruited casuals, I hear them cautiously raising their concerns – just like any new incumbent, more worried about how to do their job than the conditions under which they are employed. I hear the same concerns being raised that I myself might have mentioned 10 years previously, and try to explain to the group at my table that although it might seem that you’re being listened to, these situations have largely got worse, not better.

    It’s alright though, to my dear employer, I will grow old and sick and tired of all this, and the opportunity you have given me to improve my skills has been great. I’m looking at other options though, so I’ll take my cynicism and greatly improved student outcomes and evaluations with me and you can go through the whole process of training your younger and fresher models yet again, within your framework of ‘economic efficiency’.

    CASA, I love the stories you share, and the intelligence with which you write. NTEU I appreciate the role you play but unfortunately it just feels like a losing battle. Those younger fresher models are waiting in their droves to take anything they can get so the problems will remain.

    All the best, and I suppose ‘solidarity’ is what I’d like to believe in but …


    Posted by Annabelle Leve | April 21, 2016, 11:07 am
    • Thank you, Annabelle. We’re both really sorry not to have been able to put out more posts recently — work and family issues have hit us both — but we are so appreciative of the support we get to keep going.

      The really painful issue you raise here: that the casual workforce renews itself annually. Personally, I think this is because the most academically engaged and capable undergraduates who are thinking about continuing to a PhD can get all the way through the system without knowing who has been teaching them. This is because universities induct academics who work casually into a kind of complicit silence, masked as “professionalism”. And this is exactly how we perpetuate the problem.

      To me this means we need academics with secure jobs to offer much more in the way of solidarity and protest.

      In the degree I teach into, way more than half the face to face teaching is done by academics working casually. Way more. So the logical conclusion from this is that if they don’t accept this work, actually we can’t offer the degree. And very, very quickly that means no jobs for anyone.

      Let’s think about this together for a bit. It’s a very risky way to run a business.

      Posted by Kate Bowles | April 21, 2016, 8:19 pm
    • Hi Annabelle

      I think you make a good point about how with experience academics become more productive and effective with their teaching. This is what I think is the biggest waste in the system – the churn of casuals frequently means we have people doing the job for the first time. By the same token, we also have casuals who remain for many years doing the same job in more effective ways, but they remain casual despite the predictability of their work. Others will simply leave after a few years once they find better options. It’s a waste, but I struggle to know how to best measure this wastage in my own research and how to convey it in an effective way. Almost no university managers or leaders see reducing casualisation as a future priority, they are much more likely to see increased casualisation as necessary. See page 44 of the below report:

      Click to access aheia-higher-education-workforce-of-the-future-report.pdf

      Posted by Peter Bentley | June 1, 2016, 4:25 pm
      • It is frustrating too, that as an experienced (casual) academic, each trimester I have to hunt down a teaching opportunity – even units I have taught previously,maybe for a number of years, it is only by chance that I happen to find out they might be needing staff – the unit chairs – who rarely have skills or care in effectively managing ‘staff’, and will only invite their favoured few (such a lack of transparency), are also eminently replaceable and so there is no development of, or reward for improving the effectiveness of your teaching long term in a particular unit/area of study..
        BTW I have accepted a volunteer role overseas and will not be available next trimester – I wonder if anyone will notice? (Very unlikely…)

        Posted by Annabelle Leve | June 3, 2016, 10:09 am
        • Hi Annabelle,

          Transparency is doubtless a problem, but I also hear concerns about casuals needing to re-apply for positions and going through a phantom recruitment process. Casual work is diverse, but I think if we focused on the more predictable aspects like tutorial and marking, we could come up with some solution which would improve the situation. Universities seem risk averse on staffing, it is far too easy for them to place all risk on casuals for fluctuation in student enrollment. The flip side is that they are not risk averse when it comes to the risks associated with not being able to staff the tutorial with someone who has the skills and experience (like your example of being unavailable). Maybe casuals are replaceable, but there are certainly some risks in that approach.

          There are probably good reasons why universities/departments don’t do this, but maybe they could offer casuals an arrangement whereby they are guaranteed the tutorial/marking work for a given unit in the subsequent year if they have demonstrated their competence previously? If fewer or more students enrolled, then the amount of work would vary, but it would at least reduce some of the risks for casuals and given them more power to speak up. Just throwing that idea out there as a possibility…

          Posted by Peter Bentley | June 3, 2016, 11:20 am
  3. Hi Kate and Karina, Thanks again for the post and all the work you do. Just some thoughts, especially as we head into (another) federal election – which appears to be the only time us plebs can raise difficult issues and see how squirmy the politicians become (lol). Firstly, the NTEU. As you mention, there are a range of reasons that casual staff are not members (myself – money, disenchantment) – but perhaps the union needs to be worried (and their members also) that the continuing jobs are gradually being lost, either through redundancies, attrition or replacement with fixed term/casual staff. Therefore, while the NTEU fights first for continuing/permanent staff, their member base is being whittled away, and at some point, their members are likely to become part of the casual workforce.

    Secondly, students – I worry that the focus on education as a pathway to work is no longer viable. We are producing a generation of graduates across all fields (including law, engineering and at some not too distant point, medicine also) who will not find the work they thought was available, may end up in career paths that were not their focus of their studies, are under-employed or unemployed. Think of this – we are producing a generation where many are in temporary, casual, fixed term employment. They are increasingly being shut out of the financial system – especially for housing and mortgages. Many of these graduates are lured into postgrad (coursework/RHD) pathways as they find it difficult to gain employment in their field after gaining the undergrad degree. This is unsustainable. Universities are contributing to this with no sense of obligation for the coming employment deficit. One example is a uni where a new position has been created for an RHD development role, managed within the marketing department – unis are now factories, and we know where the manufacturing industry is headed at the moment.

    Thirdly, casuals, fixed termers and other staff – this is a no-win situation, as you have noted, and an exploitable pool of workers that gets supplemented/expanded each year. Perhaps the only way to get some exposure is a complete walk-out one day (first day of first semester, perhaps?) across Australia – now, that would get the VCs and DVCs talking!!! I doubt it will happen as everyone is conscious of their own fragile situation. But until we all start talking to students, to politicians, to the media (as you both do) then probably nothing will change, and it will continue to get worse.

    I will be asking the aspiring politicians in my electorate some questions, preferably in the public meet and greet sessions. Maybe now is the time,

    Thanks again, Shea.

    Posted by Shea | April 23, 2016, 11:17 am
    • Shea, I’m still nodding – all the yes to what you say above.

      And yes, I sometimes have oddly specific daydreams of a mass walkout (it’ll be on the half hour of the Wednesday of the second week of the first semester of the year. When all the tutorials and postgraduate seminars have started, staffed by hundreds of casual and sessional academics – some of them in their first year of a research degree and teaching for the very first time. And all the lecture theatres and tutorial and seminar rooms are filled with thousands of undergrads, including many first years, who have no idea about how university teaching is managed and how many of their individual teachers are employed.
      Until the person at the front of the room picks up their bag and walks out midway through the class).

      Posted by Karina | April 27, 2016, 11:53 am
      • Funny – the lecture theatre scenario – the reaction of the 4 (out of 258 total enrolment) students who actually turn up to the lecture theatre probably would not have quite the noticeable effect that we would like! Another (related) issue, is the apparently diminished need to even attend lectures and except for the teaching staff, nobody else seems to be noticing this as a problem!

        Posted by Annabelle Leve | June 3, 2016, 10:01 am
        • Hence the necessity of scheduling any walkouts in the second week of first semester when students haven’t yet figured out whether and how lecture attendance is monitored so they are still packing the lecture theatre seats (and stairs). After that – yes, agreed – in some lectures, the impact’d be greatly diminished!

          Posted by Karina | June 3, 2016, 2:50 pm

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