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Lachlan is a Sessional Staff member at Victoria University, Melbourne. Since 2011, he has also taught at Swinburne University of Technology. He is an historian whose research interests include anti-communism, security and intelligence, nuclear power and weapons, Aboriginal affairs and Australian political history.

Website: http://vu.academia.edu/LachlanClohesy

University Casuals call on Vice-Chancellors to #makethepledge to support victims of Family Violence

Insecure Work and Family Violence

Family violence (or, depending on the circumstances and jurisdiction, domestic violence or intimate partner violence) is an issue which has (rightly) been highly publicised in the Australian media for several years now. Rosie Batty, in particular, has elevated this issue to national prominence following her own traumatic and highly publicised circumstances during 2014. Her recognition as Australian of the Year in 2015 is a testament to her own courage and tenacity as an advocate for those affected by the scourge of family violence.

Family violence does not discriminate. It can be found across all cultures and all socioeconomic backgrounds. While there may be some disagreement about the exact statistics (which are likely also affected by under-reporting of family violence), certain trends are clear. Family violence is an issue which overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) affects women. The ABC’s Fact Check unit reflects other studies in contending that women are victims of family violence three times more than men.

Universities are not immune from what has been described as an ‘epidemic’. It is, however, only in recent years that universities have come to recognise the importance of providing domestic violence leave for their employees. In 2011 Michelle Brocker, an incredibly brave advocate on the issue of domestic violence, led an effort to convince her own university – Swinburne University – to provide this leave. In 2013 the National Tertiary Education Union used International Women’s Day to recognise that domestic violence was not just a social and economic issue, but also an industrial issue. Throughout subsequent rounds of enterprise bargaining, universities saw the merits of this point and included provisions which guaranteed access to domestic violence leave. Unfortunately, like many other workplace rights, this did not extend to casually employed university staff.

There are more than 100,000 casuals employed in the tertiary education sector nationally, forming the majority of academic teaching staff and a high percentage of professional staff. The casualisation of academia is an important issue, and affects both the ability of staff to teach to their full potential, and the quality of the student experience. What is also clear is that there is a gendered dimension to casual work – casually employed staff are more likely to be women. When it comes to family and intimate partner violence, however, one thing is so obvious that it should not need to be stated – casually employed staff are not immune.


Victorian Casuals Council and Domestic Violence Leave

In Victoria, university casuals have organised themselves into the Victorian Casuals Council (VCC). This group of NTEU members meets regularly, and the women members of the VCC decided to lead a campaign on this important issue to coincide with Blue Stocking Week – a week which annually focuses on the role of women in higher education. Such a step is both important and necessary – at the beginning of the campaign only Swinburne University extended its domestic violence leave provisions to casual staff (Deakin University and La Trobe University have subsequently agreed to this provision).

The campaign, calling on university Vice-Chancellors to #makethepledge to extend domestic violence leave to casually employed staff, was recently launched during 2016’s Blue Stocking Week. Liana Papoutsis, a human rights advocate and leading advisor on family violence, gave a powerful speech which highlighted both the importance of leave but also appropriate family violence training at universities. Liana’s expertise was evident – she is currently working with the Victorian Government as a member of the Victim Advisory Support Council and advises the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Michelle Brocker, who was so instrumental in achieving domestic violence leave provisions at Swinburne, also gave a stirring speech which emphasised the absolute necessity of leave for staff affected by domestic violence.

As part of the campaign, letters were sent to university Vice-Chancellors detailing the need for the extension of this provision to casually employed staff so they are able to find safety for both themselves and their families. While the VCC had hoped to announce that Vice-Chancellors had agreed that this leave was important and guaranteed that it will apply to casually employed staff – this was unfortunately not the case. Swinburne University had previously agreed to this right, and Deakin University and La Trobe University have also indicated that they will move to ensure casually employed staff are included. Other Victorian universities (at the time of writing), had unfortunately failed to respond or indicated that this important issue will be put off until future rounds of enterprise bargaining – and by implication bartered for like any other workplace right. This response is disappointing and grossly inadequate, and fails to acknowledge the profoundly difficult circumstances that staff members find themselves in through no fault of their own. It further highlights that to ensure even the most basic and necessary rights for casual staff, collective action to pressure university management is necessary.

While it should not take a highly visible campaign of collective action to move university management into line with broader Australian community expectations, those involved in campaigning for rights and conditions for casual university staff know that even the most sensible, well-reasoned and intelligently argued positions will meet resistance from university managements which seek to deny these rights. Workplace conditions such as domestic violence leave, paid parental leave and even the right to be paid for work performed are resisted at every turn. The #makethepledge campaign highlights clearly that outcomes for casually employed workers need to be secured through collective action, rather than the benevolence or goodwill of university management.


You can support the #makethepledge campaign by signing the petition here.

Dr Lachlan Clohesy is a casual academic who has taught at Victoria University and Swinburne University. He is also a member of the Victorian Casuals Council and works with the NTEU’s SuperCasuals campaign.

The Casualisation of Academia: impacts on Australian universities

Academic teaching conditions are student learning conditions

The current climate in Australian universities exposed by Four Corners in their recent episode ‘Degrees of Deception’ highlights some of the challenges in Australian tertiary education today. As government funding declines and tertiary institutions increasingly face challenges from private education providers, universities are understandably looking to tighten their budgets. In doing so, however, universities have increasingly resorted to exploitation of casual staff in order to cut costs. This trend toward casualisation in academia generally means declining levels of institutional support for academics and this has negative repercussions both for the working conditions of academics themselves and for support offered to university students.

More than half of teaching and research academics in Australian universities are employed on a casual basis. This is a significant difference to the rest of Australia, in which casuals make up 23 percent of the workforce. Despite arguments from universities that academic staff value the flexibility of casual employment, research suggests that only 12 percent of casual academics are ‘casual by choice’. The majority of casual academics aspire to an academic career. The same research also found that the majority of casual academics are likely to be young and female. Trends suggest that casual teaching (as a percentage of full-time equivalent teaching) at universities has almost doubled since 1990, with the consequence that casualisation has become an entrenched feature of the academic landscape. For many university employees, the image of an ‘ivory tower’ academic is far from their lived reality. While in the past a casual position may have been seen as an entry-level step on a pathway to permanent employment, in today’s university casualisation has become a new norm.

Casual academics are employed on a semester to semester basis, paid only for the hours taught at university. It is a precarious existence. It is not uncommon for an academic to be unaware of how many hours they will be working until the first week of semester – indeed it is common for academics to begin work before signing a contract. In some cases academics are led to believe they will be engaged for a semester and plan their lives accordingly, only to be informed at the last minute that their services are not required. Holidays such as Easter and Christmas, rather than representing a festive period to be enjoyed with family, represent periods of unemployment. Casual academic staff also face isolation within institutions (they are rarely invited, for example, to faculty meetings), a lack of appropriate induction and discrimination in other areas – the superannuation of full-time academics is almost double that of a casual employee, for example.

While casual academics are often highly motivated and highly qualified for their roles, the lack of support afforded to them undoubtedly impacts on outcomes for students. Universities are increasingly concerned with student retention, especially since the removal of caps on university places and the growth of private providers in the education market. The literature on what is termed the ‘First Year Experience’ suggests that having teaching staff available and accessible for students is important, and that the numbers of students seeking assistance from teaching staff outside teaching time is increasing. Levels of feedback expected by students have also increased. It is also important for staff to be aware of services for the provision of student support, but without adequate induction this is problematic. In short, casual academics staff are expected to be more available and perform more work – and too often that work is performed for free. What is clear is that there is a contradiction between the desire of universities to increase student retention and improve their teaching and learning practices, and the increasing casualisation of the staff that perform front-line teaching and engage with their students.

In recent times there has been an increase in awareness of the issues resulting from the casualisation of academia. Blogs such as the popular Casual, Adjunct, Sessional staff and Allies in Australian Higher Education (CASA) are contributed to by casual academics and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has made the issue a priority, holding a National Insecure Work Conference in late 2014. In Victoria, the NTEU has kicked off a campaign around casual academic work with the theme of SuperCasuals, emphasising the incredible work casual academics perform under trying conditions. These initiatives are a great start. However, they must continue to build momentum in order to improve conditions for casual academics, as well as providing more secure work. Academics must be confident of their inclusion in the institutions in which they teach, and must be afforded the time, resources and support to carry out their duties to the best of their ability. Only then can Australian universities be confident in providing the best outcomes for both academics and students.

Dr. Lachlan Clohesy is a casually employed teaching academic at Victoria University and Swinburne University in Melbourne.  He is also involved with the NTEU SuperCasuals campaign.


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