Actual casuals: share your stories

Australian higher education institutions are bound by complex reporting requirements, including of student and staff data, and this data is used in different ways, including in public reporting.  It’s a very sensitive matter for universities, particularly as “significant reliance on academic staff employed under casual work contracts” has been identified as an institutional risk (although the Agency that identified this is now itself under review). This means that universities need to provide accurate data on what proportion of their staff are on casual contracts, even while there is still some ambiguity about what constitutes “significant reliance” in different contexts.

Reporting of staff data includes the breakdown of full-time, fractional and casual staff.  Casual staff are reported in two ways and at two different reporting intervals: as estimated full-time equivalent, and as end of year FTE count (Actual Casuals). *Thanks to Robyn May for correcting the earlier version of this.

One of the aims of this blog is to collect information and insights from Australian researchers into how data is collected, and how the various different forms of casual engagement with universities work. In particular, we want to look at how and why the Australian experience of “casual” is different from what the US terms “adjunct”, and why the role that we commonly call “adjunct” is here for a different reason, and to enable a different kind of contribution to Australian higher education.

But “actual casuals” is also a resonant term for many of us who are concerned about the impact of extended casual employment on the actual people who undertake this kind of work in universities, across many different units and divisions.  If you’d like to contribute a post to us, read Join Us.  But if you have an “actual casual” story about working casually, or working with university casuals, that you’d like to leave for others to think about, feel free to share it by replying to this.

What’s happening where you are? What’s working well or less well?  Is there something to celebrate? Experienced casuals, do you have tips for managing casual space, casual contracts, casual time sheets, time itself? Share them here.

(And just a caution: before you identify where exactly you work, do remember that actual universities and actual faculties are actually very sensitive.)




16 thoughts on “Actual casuals: share your stories

  1. I am feeling extremely powerless and disenfranchised. I have been working as a casual academic (teaching & researching) since 2010, and the glamour of teaching at university has definitely worn off over the last year, especially after doing approximately 200 hours extra unpaid work last year. Mad to do so, I know, but it sort of creeps up on you as you endeavour to keep on top of all that is required of you in a new position. After strong verbal intimations that another .4 position would be forthcoming, I was emailed a week before Christmas to tell me this would no longer be happening. So, back on the treadmill of approaching course coordinators for work, which they can’t offer til late February because they have not had their classes finalised etc. What hurts the most is the lack of humanity in the system. The assumption that it is ok to pick me up and put me down, ok to not have regular & consistent access to a computer and desk, ok to not have room to tell students where I’ll be consulting from, ok to have no access to training between semesters because I’m not actually employed at those times, ok to have no career path…
    But what has really got me fuming now is that the uni I work for decided last year (apparently after consultation with the Deans – how many of them are casually employed I wonder?) to pay us fortnightly in arrears. What this means is that in effect I don’t receive payment for work done over 3 weeks after the work is completed. So it is the beginning of week 4 and I have just received payment for tutoring done in week 1. The justification for this is that if we are paid on time (so to speak) in situations where academics don’t do the work or tutorials are cancelled, it is very hard to get the money back.
    What I would like to do at my uni is to speak with other casual academics to find out how they feel about this and other issues, and maybe what they have done to imporve their working environment. The thing is, I don’t really know how to go about it because one is in contact with only a few fellow tutors in one’s own field, and I can’t imagine the university would let me use the all staff email…. Cynically, I wonder if this is purposeful on the university’s part – if we aren’t a group then we have little traction.
    Any suggestions gratefully received.

    Posted by Lisa | March 24, 2014, 10:34 am
    • Hi Lisa,
      First of all, I’m really sorry to hear of your troubles, and how you’ve been (mis)treated by the institution you are obviously very dedicated to. It’s of little comfort, I know, but you’re not alone, and the way you’re being treated is in no way a reflection on you as a person and as a worker.
      I have a couple of ideas for you – have you spoken to your NTEU branch about the payment in arrears issue? There are rules about the amount of time that can pass between work done and wages paid, so it might be worth checking up with them to see where this new policy sits. As to making contact with other casual academics in your university; that’s tough. Is there a postgrad association at your uni? Given so many people begin their casual careers as PhD students, it might be possible to start building a network from there. A Facebook group/page might be another way to start reaching out and building a network, and perhaps you could promote it with flyers or something around campus – are there any spaces casual academics are likely to be, e.g. do they have access to departmental staff common rooms, do they use particular computer labs, etc.? The other thing to do would be try talking to the course convenors you have good relationships with (I hope there are some!). I know that many course convenors share our concerns, and they may be able to help you make contacts with casual academics in other departments.
      Best of luck.

      Posted by Natalie Osborne | March 24, 2014, 11:15 am
  2. Oh, wow. Just wow. And also welcome to CASA. We’d be very interested to hear from casuals anywhere on how communication within your own institution works. Is there any institution supporting this well? (#notholdingbreath)

    Posted by Kate | March 24, 2014, 11:02 am
  3. Hi Lisa,
    Jen from NTEU Nat Office here. Though the details depend on where you are, each University has an industrial obligation to pay you within a certain time period after submission of a signed time sheet. This might be a fortnight or 22 days. You can check out our advice for your institution on the Unicasual website and if you are a member, please talk to the organiser or delegate for your Branch. It is extraordinary to think the Deans could make a determination to arbitrarily alter the industrial expectations of the university.
    Hope this helps,

    Posted by Jen | March 24, 2014, 12:32 pm
  4. I worked as a casual for many, many years. I experienced the ups of teaching and the downs of not knowing when the next job was coming. I rapidly realised it wasn’t for me. I built a research consultancy company that allows me to carry out academic research while consulting to global companies. And now I have just built a new online business (www.thelecturevault.com) where academics, casual staff and professional trainers can sell their lectures to a global audience. It’s a new business, but exciting to launch! Check it out. It may offer you the chance to earn some more money for lectures you have created. It may also inspire you to think up ways to satisfy your need to be within education but perhaps not within the system of education!

    Posted by Dean | April 8, 2014, 12:29 am
  5. Having worked as an academic casual for five years I take a very pragmatic approach to the work. It’s good money if you don’t invest yourself over much in the quality of the content. It’s not like anyone asks your opinion anyway. I have found that over the last few years there has been a definite move to limit the content in many courses and streamline tutorials. Much of what we are delivering now is study skills over content as students are under prepared to write and research to even a minimum standard. This appears to persist even into third year, which leads me t suspect we are passing them through with substandard quality of work.This semester I am marking over 300 students work, teaching in five courses over three universities, a bit insane. I didn’t intend to do all this but due to the haphazard nature of engagements, I found myself accepting work just in case I didn’t get other offers, other casuals will know what I mean.
    Just like many workers, I aim to beat the system. I carefully note exactly how many minutes I am being paid per student assignment and only spend that time or less on each (I try to beat my time, a marking personal best, 😉 Since I have been doing this for years I am pretty fast, but there is always room for improvement! Keeping ahead of the system by only giving what I am paid for helps me retain my dignity and feel I have just a little control.

    Posted by Maggie | April 17, 2014, 10:54 pm
  6. Hi everyone, Thanks for your posts, I found them very relevant to my own experience. The university I’ve worked at has always paid in arrears, by two weeks. The last two hires for me (fixed term contracts) I waited six weeks for the first payment to appear, and then three weeks for the second, although these were supposed to be contract roll-overs. The second time was due to the paperwork being on someone’s desk, who happened to be on leave, and no one noticed till I asked – well, not ‘ask,’ I did suggest I might leave in the early weeks of semester if pay didn’t arrive. It seems that casuals are not only just in-time hires for those difficult courses no one else wants to teach into, but paying them is a ‘casual’ affair also. And I agree very much with Maggie’s comment that teaching is now about study skills rather than content. It’s probably this, more than anything, that has turned me off teaching, as it seems to be more a case today of instructing students on how to structure an essay, appropriate grammar, punctuation and spelling.

    Posted by Mandalay | April 18, 2014, 11:39 am
  7. I can’t bring myself to skimp on the feedback and assistance given to students. It’s why I do the job. But, I know there is no career nor long-term benefit of anything that I do. The powers-that-be sing of the higher rate paid to casuals, but forget that the beneficiary of the short-term higher rate is the government. Many of us rely on Centrelink payments to top up the lack of income and therefore any higher rate paid during semester is taken away, dollar for dollar, resulting in actual payment being not much more than $80 for more than 20 hours work. I have been a casual for 6 years and with university cuts have doubts if even that will continue. I am shocked at how universities are getting around the required reporting on casuals with the employment of PhD students as tutors which lowers costs, justifies the employment of casuals and prevents the creation of on-going positions. The PhD students, like myself, work extra, put in hundreds of volunteer hours in the hope that such efforts will improve our chances of securing an on-going position; a position that doesn’t and won’t exist. “It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    Posted by Ma | May 6, 2014, 9:33 am
  8. I did it for more than a decade- as a PhD student and as a postdoc. The best (and worst) thing I ever did was walk away from it. I have an adult life with adult responsibilities and other people’s inability to study/learn is no longer my problem. I work in an area that meets the values I was looking for in higher ed (creating a better world- naiive right?ha!) and don’t miss it.

    Posted by frank | May 6, 2014, 7:14 pm
  9. I’ve been doing it for 5+ years. I think the key to ‘making it work’ is recognising that the system is genuinely broken. Could accounts of this here:
    When you know you’re in a severely disfunctional and morally corrupt structural situation, you can know your place and work within the obvious limitations. The big danger – tragedy – is when there is a large gap between a sessional’s aspirations and the reality.

    If there is a fight, it is far broader than the sphere of causalisation and exploitation – it is for education per se to be the bedrock of an egalitarian polis. Such a fight has long been lost on these shores, and it will take a generation or two to rebuild – if indeed, such ground can ever be reclaimed.
    This broader fight, I think, is worth devoting a life to even if it entails sacrificing pragmatism and material security. In some sense, my own approach to this dreadful paradigm is to disinvest institutionally and re-apply my political energies in other domains. i.e. don’t play the game – stand outside of it and illuminate why it is pernicious. We have more agency than we think – we can write and speak and act without careerist intentions.

    Posted by tobes8 | August 29, 2014, 2:15 pm
  10. I’m not even a casual. A senior academic who I’d approached for advice on how to offer my (non-academic) services commercially to the university sector invited me to do some work on her project. She undertook to pay me for my work at a level commensurate with my academic qualifications and experience. She then invited me to get started in anticipation of a formal written contract, as the project had an urgent deadline. I agreed, while setting a time limit on my availability, which she acknowledged. I then spent many weeks of my time and several thousand dollars in order to work on the project. She said the work was excellent. However, despite several attempts to pin down what the actual contract would say regarding the scope of my contribution, I was never able to get a clear answer. The contract appeared in my email in-box for the first time AFTER I had stopped work due to my window of availability coming to a close. It had a completely inaccurate description of the work I had agreed to do, as well as other standard clauses I couldn’t sign (e.g. because I was supposed to have several million dollars’ worth of insurance which I had not had while doing the work) and had not been warned to expect. When I complained the academics on the project went straight into adversarial mode, openly talking about ‘making their case’ while I requested the opportunity to mediate and try to fix the misunderstanding. That was all back in June this year. I really needed the money then (and now) but still haven’t seen a penny. The academics say I should accept a much lower fee than agreed, which was already lower than a casual employee would have received, because the work was not done to their satisfaction (even though they never told me what they actually wanted, accepted all my work when delivered, circulated it to their project partners and continued issuing specific instructions to do tasks that I then did right up to the end of the time I was working for them). Apparently the only avenue open to me is through the courts: because I am not even a casual employee, I am not eligible to join the union. I gather I also can’t do anything through the Fair Work Ombudsman because I was never an employee and am classed as an independent contractor. I hired a lawyer who said I definitely have a legal entitlement to be paid (all the communications were via email so I can prove what happened) but the cost of actually pursuing the money will outweigh the amount I would be able to recover. So it looks like I spent my time and money for literally no return. The irony is that the project was about exploitative academic work practices and the lead investigator specifically said she wanted me to do the work because of my experience of having been employed under such practices by universities in the past.
    Does anyone have any ideas about what I can do? These people should be up for misconduct but the university doesn’t seem interested in anything remotely approaching justice. They just want me to accept the lower amount of money and go away. When I said no, I wanted them to listen to what actually happened, they stopped answering my emails or phone calls.
    This makes me so angry… I would love to just let it go and chalk it up to experience… but then they just keep getting away with stuff like this and I hate that – and meanwhile because of all the time I spent waiting and working on their project and all the money I spent in order to be able to do it (e.g. childcare, travel) I literally had NO net income last year. Luckily I am not the main breadwinner but it’s not as though as a family we can afford to chuck away tens of thousands of dollars… pshaw.

    Posted by PoorlittleDVC | December 13, 2014, 4:04 pm


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