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.