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Academics as employers: accepting the responsibility

The casualisation of academia means that academics in ongoing and fixed-term roles increasingly wield proxy-employer powers over their colleagues who are employed as tutors and research assistants. In this post, I argue that academics need to think carefully about how this power is wielded. This does not mean accepting such power is desirable. Rather, it means more explicitly acknowledging that inequitable employment relations exist between academics, and then articulating and accepting the responsibilities that these inequities entail.

Academic as employers

Most academics would prefer more equitable employment relations. Among other things, inequitable working conditions can stymie collaborative working relationships and prevent long-term collaborations.

However, the growth of casual employment, and the extension of casual employment deeper into academic careers, has meant that current working relations are highly inequitable. There are around 60,000 academics in casual employment in Australia alone. In most cases, these academics directly report to another academic on an ongoing or fixed-term contract.

While casual academics are formally recruited and hired by their universities, the wafer-thin nature of casual contracts gives permanent staff considerable proxy-employer powers. Casual academic employment is essentially piece-rate work, with no obligation to employ casual academic staff beyond any given task or hour. As a result, securely employed academics can effectively hire and fire their casual colleagues. The latter is alarmingly straightforward: a unit convener can usually end a tutor’s employment simply by not contacting him or her for the next available work.

The consequence of this informal but effective dismissal for casual staff can be severe. Casual academics are often on low annual incomes, despite sometimes having misleadingly high hourly wages. One lost teaching contract can be the difference between a living wage and financial crisis.

The vulnerability of casual staff to dismissal, and the high costs of such dismissal, is a significant barrier to raising employment issues or concerns. Even permanent staff are reluctant to raise employment issues with their heads of department, deans or vice-chancellors, despite having fairly secure employment conditions and a living wage. How much more difficult, then, is it for casual staff to raise employment concerns with their immediate academic supervisors, when casual staff have no employment security, and when losing one contract might mean not being able to pay the rent?

Responsible employer practice

Recognising the proxy-employer power academics wield over their casual colleagues means thinking carefully about the responsibilities such power entails.

This does not mean accepting that casual employment is desirable. To the contrary, I would argue that ongoing and fixed-term academics’ comparatively privileged positions creates an ethical responsibility to advocate both within universities and in public for more secure employment conditions for their academic colleagues who are casually employed.

However, until more equitable conditions are achieved, securely employed academics need to ensure that their proxy-employer powers are used as transparently and responsibly as the structural inequities in academic employment allow.

Three initial suggestions are below.

  1. Pre-empting employment concerns

Since casual academics’ structural position inhibits them raising issues, academics need to pre-empt potential concerns as far as possible, and also make time and space to initiate discussions.

I have often heard ongoing academics state that casual staff on their units have no complaints. While this may be true, unit conveners will not necessarily hear these complaints because casual staff fear to raise them. Because the stakes are high, such fear can persist even in otherwise respectful and collegial working relations.

Hence, academics in proxy-employer roles need to anticipate and address areas of likely conflict. Unlike casual staff, ongoing academics face little risk in raising issues for discussion. Consider the vexed issue of academic authorship. For the casual research assistants, asking whether they will be an author on a paper risks creating an area of conflict – as all academics know only too well.

The structural inequity in academic employment voice places the onus on the employing academic to initiate authorship discussions early in the research relationship. Often, this discussion is put off until too late, when the casual academic has invested considerable time in a project, or while facing considerable pressure to achieve publication, often to escape casual employment. By the project’s end his or her role has already been defined, so the opportunity for a casual staff member to step into an authorship role, or to amicably resolve disagreements about academic contribution, may have been lost.

  1. Cultivating career opportunities

Since casual academic work has no career path as such, I believe that permanent and fixed-term staff have a responsibility to at least work towards this end. Continuing the authorship example, this would imply that an employing academic has a responsibility to create opportunities for research assistants to be involved at an authorship level. Legitimate co-authorship can at least help develop an academic career after the research contract ends.

Academic unit conveners could also reflect on what they can offer their tutors longer term. This could mean advocating for paid professional development. It might also mean building on their working relationship with tutors by involving them in research collaborations or grant applicants.

  1. Timely and direct communication.

Finally, the imbalance in academic power, knowledge and wages places the onus on academics in proxy-employer roles to inform their casual colleagues as soon as possible about if they have a tutoring job next semester, and about when the next stage of a research project will start.

While poor communication between any academic can be frustrating, it does not directly affect the wages of academics in ongoing or fixed-term roles. By contrast, casual academics need to know when work is happening because they only get paid when it does.

Reluctant to be seen as a nuisance, many casual staff will silently sweat on employment offers that are not forthcoming until a week or two before semester starts. Or they will wait quietly for the next stage of a research project to begin while anxiously watching their bank balance dwindle.

Accepting the responsibility

Why do academics not always initiate these kinds of discussions? I suspect that one reason is that academics in ongoing and fixed-term roles – myself included – are often reluctant to consider ourselves as actual or proxy employers. An unsettling discovery of my first research account as a fixed-term academic was that I suddenly had the kind of arbitrary power over research assistants that I had often been on the receiving end of in my own many years employed on casual contracts. Clearly though, ignoring this power, or wishing it was not there, did not make it go away.

My argument is that the inequity of power between academics needs to be acknowledged and addressed more explicitly. While by no means a perfect solution, formally accepting that academics have proxy-employer powers, and then being as transparent and accountable as possible about how they are used, would at least improve on the status quo. Negotiating, promoting and adhering to principles for working responsibly with colleagues who are employed casually is also one practical commitment to changing the inequities in academic culture that current employment conditions induce.

We – meaning all academics, whatever our contractual conditions and roles, then need to think collectively, seriously and urgently about how we respond to the environment that has created this imbalance in employment power to begin with.

Dale Tweedie is a fixed-term Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney.  He has also researched on trends in, and consequences of, insecure employment in Australia and abroad.



7 thoughts on “Academics as employers: accepting the responsibility

  1. Thank you for writing this, it’s just so clear. As an academic in an ongoing position I think we really need to step up on this question of accepting responsibility.

    There are two further problems related to this set of issues, and I’d be glad to know your thoughts on them.

    The first is that not being hired might amount to an effective experience of having been dismissed, but there are no protections against this, and this presents a frightening vulnerability to student complaint or discrimination.

    The second is that the pseudo employer role becomes entangled with confusion about actual supervisory roles, which are often present in policy but very muddled in practice. With more actual hiring functions becoming formalised to finance and HR teams, the ensuing relationship between colleagues in teaching teams becomes important to define. But none of this draws attention, and so responsibilities are often left to goodwill, until conflict arises–which is too late.

    Are there any institutions managing these issues well?

    Posted by Kate Bowles | August 1, 2016, 3:39 pm
    • Thanks Kate.

      I see the first point you raise as part and parcel of the general lack of industrial protections around casual work, which I think stem from the casual employment category being used for purposes for which it was (arguably) never intended, and certainly isn’t suited. I’m sure many people have already come across discussions of the legal interpretations of casual work as an employment relation of ”so minimal duration as to barely exist”, where “‘the employer need only offer employment to the casual employee if he or she wishes to do so”. This sort of employment relation seems suited to something like fruit picking labour, that actually is fairly transitory. But it is certainly not suited to regular academic work, where many academics have been teaching the same courses at the same institutions for 5 or 10 or even more, but with almost no formal protection, including in the ways you describe.

      The second point you raise is I think also an important part of the discussion / reflection that academics in more secure employment roles need to have. One advantage of thinking of relations between academics as at least a proxy employer relationships is that it then potentially becomes more natural / acceptable to talk about employment rights in this context, rather than casual teaching being seen as some kind of extension of the supervisor student relationship (which it isn’t).

      I’m not sure what universities are doing this well, but other public service institutions could be worth looking at. My understanding (and people working in other public service organisations might correct me / expand on this) is that there’s much more emphasis on the responsibility of managers to support the development / career / opportunities of the people they supervise. Universities might be able to learn from some of these practices (e.g. regular career discussions and funded training and professional development).

      Posted by Dale Tweedie | August 2, 2016, 9:49 am
  2. An important read — will pin on Precarious Faculty Facebook page for max attention and boost it elsewhere. Alas, much of Dale Tweedie’s published work is behind paywalls, Some but not all of my insecurely employed readers have relatively easy affiliation access. I am not one of them.

    I did find a selection at Academia.edu, https://mq.academia.edu/DaleTweedie. The designation “subversive craft worker” strikes me as imminently adaptable as in “casual academic activists as subversive craft workers”

    Posted by VanessaVaile | August 1, 2016, 11:45 pm
    • Thanks for your comments, and I’m very happy to e-mail any articles directly if you are interested (the issue of so much publicly-funded research being behind private pay-walls is perhaps one for another post!). I’m contactable at dale.tweedie at mq.edu.au

      The discussion about ‘subversive craft workers’ is about cleaning workers rather than casual academics, but the main theme – how people deliver good quality work despite management practices that actually prevent them from doing so – is I think very relevant to casual academic work. I’m often struck by recent discussions that have started to talk of casual employment as a ‘risk’ to teaching quality. In my observation, both of practice and research, teaching quality is being maintained by the commitment of casual academic staff to their teaching in spite of the lack of institutional support or recognition. The bigger and more serious risk, then, is to the health and well-being of the casual academic staff who bear this load.

      Posted by Dale Tweedie | August 2, 2016, 9:27 am
      • Hi Dale, Vanessa

        Just in relation to the way casualisation and quality teaching get tangled up, I see the opposite concerning practice — the silencing of discussion of casualisation on the grounds that it’s insulting to casual academic staff to associate them with risk to quality. This is a very effective tactic, but it really needs calling out. The issue isn’t the quality of the staff, but fact that they have to work in such poor conditions that this affects the quality of what they can do for students.

        So perhaps we can say very specifically that casualisation is a risk to teaching quality for this reason: academics who work casually are hired late, paid even later, have no or few resources, get very limited opportunity to contribute their huge experience to curriculum development, and have very few chances to develop their own quality teaching materials. In comparison, far less experienced brand new academic hires are privileged at every step of curriculum development, and do far more teaching team leading. So at the institutional level these ways of hiring and resourcing frontline academic casual staff are the risk to quality, not the staff themselves — not at all.

        The sleeper is risk in relation to quality curriculum development as the proportion of front-line student contact teaching by academic casuals increases. There is an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and insight that is excluded from formal processes of review, and so substantially wasted. To be specific, if 60% and more of first year tutorials in a particular discipline are taught by academic casuals, their feedback is essential to effective quality improvement. Are they asked? If they are asked, are they paid to attend relevant meetings?


        Posted by Kate Bowles | August 2, 2016, 10:21 am
      • Thank you, Dale. I had already bookmarked a list of articles (plus re-read your 2014 post on CASA).

        Posted by VanessaVaile | August 3, 2016, 12:05 am
  3. “securely employed academics need to ensure that their proxy-employer powers are used as transparently and responsibly as the structural inequities in academic employment allow”
    Thank you. I was recently disparaged by a number of emails sent to all casual teaching staff, asking for anyone interested/willing to teach in a range of units that I was previously teaching in. As a casual teaching academic, I do feel that familiar desperation as the next trimester looms – don’t be too desperate, keep checking in with previous supervisors, let everyone know I would like to continue teaching in the same (or similar) units, that I am available. I don’t say my mortgage/income/children/livelihood depend on it, but it does. And I don’t know what to do with my frustration that these people, as you say, are given proxy employer status – even though they may be newly employed, have far less experience in particular areas, and be struggling themselves to prepare for teaching a unit that is new to them – but not to previous casual tutors/lecturers.
    Please ‘securely employed academics’, understand your power and pay credit to those of us who do not get the ongoing security you have been granted (no matter how hard we may have worked and fought for it).

    Posted by Annabelle Leve | August 3, 2016, 10:16 pm

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