What to say in the aftermath of this piece.
In his mid-40s, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy 15 years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.
But this semester no offer of work came through from any of the universities he had worked for over the years. Without income to pay the rent, and deprived of institutional anchorage for his vocation, we can see now that his predicament was dire.
We could talk awkwardly, haltingly, about mental health. But to do this we’d have to start with the obvious: that in the academy and everywhere else, speculation about the mental health of a person harmed by shabby, depleting and deteriorating employment conditions is a tactic, not a genuine concern.
As cost-cutting rips up working lives in an economy preparing itself for the end of work as we know it, and the prospect of fair and sustainable employment contracts to a lucky class, we’re being persuaded that work itself is a hack, a fluke, a way of haggling with the economy. Everything is precarious now; surely it’s no surprise that some people don’t have what it takes to survive in these times? And a philosophy PhD? What did you expect?
Instead we could talk about the terrible basics: whether you’ve been working as a casual employee in a university or in a supermarket or McDonalds, casual work that dries up means the same thing. In short order, you have no work, no rent, no food, no bills paid. We could talk about the fact that people who work casually have families, health problems and social challenges, and that long-term casual work has been proven to worsen the prospect of managing these well.
We could talk about how even the status of being employed or not is entirely messed up by casual work, zero hours contracts, call-me-maybe promises of work that expand and vanish at such short notice that many casuals are expected just to show up and start working without a signed contract. (We could talk about why they do.)
We could talk about trying to manage volatile shift assignments with the demands of childcare centres, or the whack-a-mole effort of trying to keep an eye on job possibilities that pop up at more than one institution.
We could talk about what it is to be deprived of the various forms of “institutional anchorage” for vocation – either chronically in the on-off form of long-term casual employment, or terminally, when you are given no more work, not even on a casual basis.
We could talk about the well known sense of social isolation that comes with being made suddenly unemployed, even as your employer pretends that this isn’t actually what happened, and there are no separation resources available to you, because you know, next semester, maybe. Don’t leave town. Don’t lose your place in the queue, on the list.
We could talk about the ageism and all the other discriminatory features of the current employment market that make it hard for longer-term academic casuals simply to “do something else”. We could talk about why a PhD is so often a disadvantage when competing with local youth job seekers for entry level positions.
We could talk about another kind of desperation and the grief that comes with being suddenly cut off from work that you have loved for more than a decade. We could talk about the tyranny of the tacit promise, the hope extended but now entirely denied. We could talk about what else was deferred during that time, or what it felt like to be good enough to do the work, but not good enough to get the real job when it came up.
And yes, we could talk about what it is to be casually employed when there is nothing casual about the work itself. There is nothing casual about education, scholarship, knowledge-seeking and sharing. (Just ask the universities who have been marketing the asset of your labour while concealing your presence on campus.)
So then we could talk about the role that universities are playing in recruiting high achieving students for their PhD programs without actively, openly insisting that they have access to the academic employment data for their disciplines. Because for sure, a PhD is still a challenging, inspiring personal journey, and there are non academic careers and employers who recognise its scope and your value if you have one. But if you’re entering the PhD track because you expect an academic job to be the payoff, you really need to know that this is more likely to be on a casual basis—for years.
We could guess that PhD candidates aren’t aware of this earlier because the academic casuals who taught them as undergraduates were discouraged from revealing, or preferred not to discuss, their employment status. We could ask why casual work is covered up, if it’s just a choice some people prefer, or just the way things are.
And sure, we could talk about the fact that unjust, insecure and exploitative working conditions are experienced right across our sector. We could all agree that academic overwork and volunteerism is chronic and routinised, that tenure is not tenure (and certainly not in Australia), that competitive anxiety is baked into the business model at every level from early career individual to whole-of-institution, that precarity of one kind or another—and its cover up—is becoming the defining condition of universities everywhere.
Or we could do something else. We could begin an urgent conversation about the relationship between academic employer and long-term academic employee, no matter their employment status. We could forcefully ask for an end to the denial that casual work is the substance of the business model in universities, just as it is in fast food. We could ask universities to begin setting their highest standards for the care, support and development of all staff including those who work casually—not as an afterthought or an aberration, but because academics and others who work casually in universities are central to how universities stay open at all.
If we did this, we could then ask that when policies are being drafted, when resources are discussed, when plans are made, that universities act at every step as places where employment is managed safely, carefully and respectfully for all, not just for the lucky few. We could begin to expect that this standard is set in strategic plans, demonstrated in the implementation of planning, and openly evaluated and reported on.
This means we could expect that in the near future, anyone thinking of working casually in a university should expect to be able to see some data on how that university is improving its care of staff, what resources are allocated to them, and what demonstrable impact this is having on their wellbeing. This information is widely collected, after all. Why not share it?
And we could go one step further, and lobby for higher education to treat the casualisation on which it depends as a ranking factor made publically available to students and their families. We could ask for casualisation to stop being higher education’s blocked drain and bad smell, and instead be some kind of higher aim: an indicator of institutional health, the management of risk, and a standard on which universities could openly compete to do better.
These are serious suggestions. We could do all of this.
@KateMfd and @acahacker
Thanks to George Morgan for writing the original article. Please read it. From that article, we reproduce here numbers you can call if you or someone you know needs support.
Lifeline 131 114
Mens Line 1300 789 978
Beyondblue 1300 224 636
Just a quick apology from us in relation to this piece — we’re working on opposite sites of the world at the moment, and the post was accidentally published while still being edited. These things do happen, but thanks for your patience if you saw an earlier version.
Beautifully written, Karina. If I didn’t have my partner’s financial support, a supportive family (albeit interstate) and a big network of supportive friends, my own encounter with depression could have ended differently. John could have been me. By the time I realised I was quite seriously depressed, I had spent years in insecure casual labour and endured more than a few job knock-backs. I did a lot of Facebooking about how I was feeling and explaining why I had got to this point – being on short teaching contracts, and trying to supplement that income with my copyediting business, writing and publishing in between semesters, writing job application after job application, getting interviews, messing up the interviews and not getting the job, time and again. I cried all the time for years. My last-ditch effort was to teach in a pathway program, which was so badly run that it sent me to the brink. I ended up in that unenviable space between quitting and being fired because I resolved that I could not continue unless I had more organisational control over what I was teaching. That was when I lost it. I hated myself deeply, I felt worthless and useless. But most of all, I felt like a failure – at academia, and at life. So what was the point in living? My brain chemistry changed – I didn’t really care if I lived or died. I thought everyone else would be better off. I wandered to the kitchen sink and opened the doors. There’s a character in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions whose wife kills herself by eating Drano. It’s not really the way I’d like to go, but the story followed me around. I was looking in that cupboard to see what poisons I could ingest. That was what spurred me to seek the counsel of a friend, who urged me to see a psychologist and consider medication. Since then, I have found a counsellor, I’m taking sertraline and I’m writing again. I have a steady stream of editorial clients, but the thought of going back into the classroom as a casual tutor/lecturer (rather than, say, a level B lecturer on a fixed term/continuing contract) fills me with dread, not because I don’t like teaching – I love teaching – but because the conditions under which casuals teach are both distressing and depressing. I don’t know how else to end this response except to say that if anyone reading this is having suicidal thoughts because of your precarious situation, talk to your friends, talk to your GP, and get a referral to a psychologist – under Medicare, you can get 10 free sessions, so it doesn’t have to be an additional cost burden. But please talk to someone about it and get help. There are creative ways to stay alive and kicking in the neoliberal present.
Thank you, Camille. I don’t know if you read the earlier version that was accidentally published, but we have updated the post to focus on what can be – needs to be – done now and your comment and advice fits in beautifully. So thank you again for helping us find the words.
Just wanted to add that how honoured we are that you shared your story here.
Just… thank you.
Camille, I’m just echoing Karina’s response below: it is a real honour to us that you shared this with us. It’s evidently hard for universities to recognise the human cost of casualisation unless these stories are told, and the stories are hard to tell. Thank you so much.
It’s a harrowing reality, kudos for sharing x
Thoughtful and well considered, on the ‘be aware’ and ‘should happen’ side. Would you have any thoughts on who would make universities do this and how? Leverage and commitment will be required to drive this.Unions are helping but do not seem to be stemming the tide. Not that what is written here is not of great value on its own.
I think there needs to be a university wide return to positions that are teaching only. There is a wide an important place for research, and this is so much the focus that teaching becomes an onorus byproduct farmed off to casuals. Why not instead hire people as teachers- not everyone who does a Phd wants to focus on research. Some want to be in the classroom above all else.
So hire a teacher instead of a researcher. Less casuals, more permanent workers.
Very disturbing. Have friends in this situation. And what might I ask is the Union,doing for them? The National Tertiaru Education Union is it? NTEU? About as useless and self serving as the old HSU or AWU? The union officials and operatives have full time jobs, holiday pay, sick leave, various comforts & entitlements but what do they do for those they are in business, and I mean business, to represent? As little as plausibly possible if you can judge by the diminishing state of conditions for those people.
It is distressing. And as members of the NTEU, we’re pretty convinced that they/we are doing more than any other organisation regarding working to improve conditions for casual employees.
But yes, it’s also helped us understand that this is not – can’t be- (just) a ‘union issue’. It’s for everybody working in universities, union member and otherwise.