In today’s post, current AHA ECR representative Dr André Brett responds to a controversial recent article on The Conversation as the first entry in a series of at least three about the effects of casualisation in Australian universities-—in general and in History specifically.
I have been considering for some time commencing a new blog series, “Thoughts from the Representative”, to discuss issues relevant to historians who are Early Career Researchers in Australia and to give my perspective. This post is not officially the first in such a series, but it is offered in the same spirit: my reflections on a hot topic relevant to ECRs. It does not express the views of the Australian Historical Association (either the executive or as an organisation), my employer (the University of Wollongong), or anyone else with whom I am affiliated. What it does express is my current thinking, which will no doubt be of interest to those I represent.
Many of you will have seen a recent article in The Conversation by Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson, and Yuliani Suseno about casualisation within academia. Its claims and recommendations have provoked strong responses. Insofar as I can tell, these responses from historians in casual employment have been almost entirely negative.
This post is, therefore, the first of at least three. It offers my reflections upon Wardale et al.’s article. The second post, by Joel Barnes, engages with the research underlying the article and interrogates its framing. The third, based on an idea from Effie Karageorgos and Imogen Wegman, collects short reactions from casual academics.
Casualisation a defining experience of ECRs
My term as the Early Career Researcher representative on the Australian Historical Association executive committee has run for about ten months now. In this time, it has become clear to me that the biggest issue facing ECRs is casualisation and the extreme degree of precarity that defines academic employment currently. My position is officially ECR representative, not casual representative, but the preponderance of casualisation and insecure work is such that I might as well be both.
Most concerns expressed to me by ECRs could be ameliorated significantly, if not entirely resolved, by stable and secure conditions of employment. It is galling, then, to read an article on The Conversation that focuses on the maintenance of a destructive model of casual employment—and indeed paints it in a far rosier light than it deserves, one that confers multiple alleged “benefits”.
Casuals: not going anywhere?
A major issue with Wardale, et al.’s article is its premise, as articulated in the title, that casual academics a). are not going anywhere, and b). that universities need to ensure this does not affect learning negatively. This suggests the problem is casuals, not those who choose to employ them casually or that casual employment is inappropriate for the delivery of higher education. It is telling that the authors make no attempt to interrogate the background to casualisation or to question the systems that reinforce it. Rather, they give blasé gestures about it being here to stay, which of course it need not be. Anybody familiar with global university rankings and other metrics knows they form an unhealthy obsession for many decision-makers; if the leading metrics were reframed to punish institutions that hired academics on short-term and insufficiently remunerated contracts, the number of exploitative positions would decline rapidly.
Casual academics are at the coalface of academia. Undergraduate course tutors, who are typically casuals, have the closest and most sustained contact with students. What is their reward? They are treated as disposable. They receive poor conditions and disrespect. Pay is meagre and often late. Senior staff who must approve timecards often fail to do so before deadlines. The difficulties are legion—I have named just a few. The effects of casualisation on the quality of teaching are, of course, serious; Wardale, et al. are not wrong to be concerned about them. But the appropriate response is not to exploit casuals in a “better” way.
Benefits of casualisation?
I want to focus on the “benefits of casualisation” section because it is the most misleading. The authors appear to have assumed that the results of a very narrow ethnographic survey of a business school—one of the least representative of all academic environments—apply to casualisation and academia as a whole.
First, this section misidentifies the casual cohort. In disciplines throughout the humanities—and the sciences—casuals are not older industry professionals sharing their networks and offering students internships. They are younger academics who are vulnerable to exploitation and in a weak position to bargain for better conditions. Worse, as I have said before, appointments and promotions to more secure positions are rarely based on the work that casuals are actually doing: “To win grants or jobs, you need to work in your own time, for no recompense, to produce publishable research. The labour that pays your bills does not advance your career, while the labour that advances your career does not pay your bills. It’s a rort.”
Second, it is almost unbelievable that Wardale, et al. would describe it as positive that casuals go beyond contractual obligations routinely. This is negative: people are doing work and not being paid for it. The reasons for this are multitudinous. Marking must be done and insufficient remuneration is given for it. Personal pride is on the line: if a tutorial were prepared in the time allocated, it would be mediocre and reflect poorly on the academic, so they take extra time. Future job opportunities depend on good student feedback, and many students are unaware of the conditions under which their teachers labour (as an undergraduate, I assumed my tutors were paid at a level similar to their intellect, i.e. very highly). In part it comes down to the simple reality that some departments within Australian universities would cease to function if casuals worked only to the terms of their contracts. Casuals evince far greater loyalty to their students, permanent colleagues, and institutions than their institutions and some permanent colleagues will ever return to them. It is a disgrace.
Third, the authors suggest casuals enjoy not being required to fulfil service requirements within their departments. The reality is contrary. Casuals perform considerable service to their departments and disciplines, often for no recognition whatsoever. It is also clear that younger academics seeking a career and the security to achieve personal goals would readily attend meetings in exchange for better pay and conditions. I have never heard anyone say “I hate annual performance reviews so much that I would rather earn starvation wages”.
Fourth, I have to wonder if the sentence that “[m]any casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions” is a joke. It is a sweeping generalisation presented without evidence, and it stands in contrast to the reality that anyone who works across numerous institutions finds their time frittered away with excessive commuting, convoluted online systems, multiple email addresses, divergent administrative expectations, and all the other problems that attend fragmented and insecure work.
Ask the wrong question, get unhelpful answers
Surely the core point should be that casualisation has created a large underclass of academics scraping together jobs simply to get by—bad jobs not designed with the best outcomes in mind for employees or their students. Casual academics work in a system that could remunerate them sufficiently to avoid poverty, overwork, mental health crises, and the like, but it is one that chooses not to. If employment is more stable and secure, academics can deliver better teaching and research. This cannot be achieved with a high level of casualisation. For universities to deliver high-quality education and fulfil one of their main purposes for existing, they must provide sufficient conditions for staff to deliver it. This is obvious.
It is perhaps telling that in trying to present the “benefits of casualisation”, Wardale et al. list a large number of disadvantages: casuals are excluded from scholarly communities, lack security or continuity, cannot access funds for conference or research travel, have no avenues for promotion, and struggle to obtain finance for mortgages and other purposes. Yet, even in stating this, Wardale et al. do not appear to appreciate the dire conditions that casuals endure. The article reads as “how can we best exploit casualisation?” rather than “how can we resolve the crisis of casualisation?” It has asked the wrong questions and, therefore, its suggestions are unhelpful.
Perhaps The Conversation should have commissioned casuals to discuss what might improve their situation and enable better teaching. Even though its business model emphasises connections between its articles and authors’ specific fields of research, a broader discussion of conditions within academia should sit within its remit as an outlet for insights on and from higher education. But I would not advise casuals to write for well-resourced publishers such as The Conversation that will not compensate them for their work. We all know that exposure does not pay the bills.