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.