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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.

 


9 comments

  1. Clive Manson

    Not an uncommon and similar $$$ saving practice. Whilst Managing a service operation for the Federal Parliament House a few years back, the Parlimentary Librarian sacked many of the staff of the Parlimentary Computer and network branch prior to Christmas, and suggested they could reapply for their jobs in the New Year!

    Fortunately their manager, a seasoned and experienced manager in the Public Service, found most of his staff alternative employment outside of PISO.

    I, as a contractor was then able to supply my staff expertise until such time as the Parlimentary Librarian was able to fill the vacancies.

    Cost them HEAPS!

  2. Kenneth McGrath

    As a student this issue is becoming increasingly important and obvious. I do not blame the tutors per se but it is impacting on the quality of the education I am ultimately paying for. When you have a tutor with 200 students how can they give any quality time especially when they are forever being pushed to do more! The corporatisation of knowledge is I believe to blame, one more neo-liberal ideological example that everything has a dollar value. Makes you wonder as I am sure Socrates would have been locked up as a public nuisance and vagrant and yet true knowledge has no price IMO. I am 58 years old and studying philosophy at one of the few uni’s that still has it where once every uni had a philosophy dept. which was seen as important but now it is all commerce and terrorism studies, things with a dollar return. Sad I think, sad for a society that has lost its way and any understanding of eudaimonia, the good life. Ken.

  3. Florence nee Fedup

    No not dollar value, but maybe dollar cost. Neo-liberals know nothing about values. Values not a part of their language.

  4. kerri

    It was a well known fact in Government secondary schools that casuals always gave more than their actual face to face hours. Some principals preferred to have a good range of casual staff as whilst they worked less hours they were always up to date with their work. ie: they used their time off to catch up with work such as correction, reporting etc. They represent unpaid labour. Mmmmm sounds a bit like slavery???

  5. Mtters Not

    Been there, done that (for a decade or so). But I had a daytime job as well. So the night-time lecturing/tutor hours were a welcomed financial bonus.

    I can well understand the anger that’s out and about amongst ‘casual’ staff (and rightly so) exacerbated by the obscene salaries paid to VCs, particularly, when in one case at least, the household income is doubled because the partner is being rewarded at the same level.

    But perhaps at a deeper and more significant level, what happens when face-to-face contact becomes an historical curiosity, because of technology?

    While teaching at the primary and lower secondary level has a atrong element of socialisation/social control in the mix, over and above the knowledge ‘insights’ and the like, that ‘dimension’ is probably lacking in the tertiary field. Or a least one would hope.

    A ‘lecture’ fom the most distinguished academic in a field can so easily be ‘broadcast’ worldwide, leaving local ‘academics’ somewhat irrelevant?

    So perhaps ‘poor’ pay evolves to be ‘no pay’?

    Be interested in your response.

  6. Pingback: The Casualisation of Academia: impacts on Australian universities – Written by LACHLAN CLOHESY | winstonclose

  7. eli nes

    Sadly labor has concentrated on the ‘$100000 degree end of the system and neglected the poor end workers and school leavers who, on a signature, can incur up to $96000 debt at compound interest. This is one of many ads, since jan 2914, being sent on to little billy, tanya and carr and probably straight to spam. These ads are from brokers they are not RTOs or providers and they used to have inducements like laptops.

    KICKSTART YOUR CAREER
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    STUDY NOW, PAY LATER
    With VET FEE-HELP* approved qualifications you can study now and pay later.

    The unis have access to billions and every VC is phishing for signatures, through middlemen, no prerequisites, little safety net, and potentially millions of Australians with personal debt of $400000 by 40.
    Still we can trust the VCs not to exploit and those few that do will meet the full force of a caring political system, can’t we???.

  8. PapaSmurf

    And yet universities never stint on Vice Chancellors’ salaries:
    http://the-scan.com/2014/10/01/v-c-salaries-2013/
    That doesn’t include perks, just the base salary.

    For comparison, the prime minister of this wide brown land makes approx $500,000 plus perks (which makes him one of the world’s best-paid government heads).

  9. Pingback: Juncture 2: Where Am I Going? And, Should I Go? | #mediablog #student

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