A Conversation About Casualisation, Part Two

Today’s post by Dr Joel Barnes is the second in a short series on casualisation in academia. You can read the first post, by Australian Historical Association Early Career Researcher representative Dr André Brett, here; the third post, which collects reactions from multiple casual/ECR historians, is here. As with the disclaimer on the other posts, the views expressed below are those of the author and do not represent his employer or the AHA.

A recent article in The Conversation has been the subject of significant online criticism of its efforts to justify widespread casualisation as a legitimate labour practice in universities. Casualisation, according to Dorothy Wardale and Julia Richardson of Curtin University, and Yuliani Suseno of Edith Cowan University, is here to stay; it just needs a few tweaks to make it ‘better’. In this post I examine the research underlying these claims, and seek to explain some of the misfires in the extrapolation from the authors’ academic research to The Conversation’s more popular format.

The article follows The Conversation’s usual practice of bootstrapping its content to peer-reviewed research published elsewhere. In this case, the underlying study, written by two of the Conversation article authors and another of their Curtin University colleagues, was recently published in Higher Education Research & Development. A second study also drawn upon remains unpublished. The authors’ research is the source of the claims that ‘many’ academics ‘enjoy the flexibility’ of casualisation, and that many casuals are ‘industry professionals’ with links to the—ahem—‘real world’. The study published so far is hyperlinked in the ‘Benefits of casual academics’ section, but is not mentioned in the text. This failure to show one’s working has contributed to a general interpretation of the article as based not in evidence but in managerial self-interest.

At the outset, Wardale et al. identify three explanations for the growth of casualised labour practices in universities. One is that such arrangements reflect wider trends in the economy as a whole. Another is the ‘flexibility’ casualisation provides, which according to the authors might benefit universities and casual academics alike. Third, casualisation allows universities to reduce labour costs. The last of these explanations is surely essential to understanding the incentives driving casualisation, but Wardale et al. seem relatively uninterested in examining its implications too closely. Had they done so more fully, it would have been difficult to miss the internal contradiction between the recognition that universities employ casuals as a cost-saving measure and the proposals at the end of the article to improve casualisation by tacking on a series of expensive extras—systematic interviewing, proper inductions, and professional development. These proposals would obviate the chief managerial appeal of the casualisation model, namely that it’s cheap. Although the proposals for ‘improvement’ give the Conversation piece its headline and central argument, they do not appear in the study so far published. Presumably they are a focus of the unpublished research, but if so one wonders if the authors’ reading of financial incentives will be any more persuasive in long form.

Instead of financial considerations, Wardale et al. focus mainly on ‘flexibility’. This item of neoliberal jargon by and large signals a gig economy paradigm that privileges the just-in-time needs of employers over the rights of employees to stable work and income. That ‘flexibility’ is in practice a managerial alibi rather than a genuine two-way street is clear from the way it is made to do too much explanatory work in the piece. ‘Flexibility’ is useful when ‘enrolments are fluctuating’, the authors tell us, citing a federal government report showing a 4.6 percent drop in enrolments between 2017 and 2018. This is hardly sufficient explanation for the nearly 50 percent increase in Australian universities’ reliance on casual contracts over the decade 2008–17 (from 15,646 to 23,205 full-time equivalent positions), nor indeed for universities’ reporting of an expected further increase in these contracts—rather than a drop—of 10.5 percent from 2017 to 2018 (actual 2018 figures are not yet available). ‘Flexibility’ is not the real explanation here; the basic fact of the cheapness of casual labour is.

At the same time, Wardale et al.’s reading of ‘flexibility’ warrants some examination. Of the two underlying studies, the one that can be assessed is an interview-based ethnography that makes a qualitative analysis of the positive and negative dimensions of casual academics’ experiences. In the interviews, ‘flexibility’ was indeed a value that respondents highlighted. It is often paired in the authors’ discussion with ‘autonomy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’, and in fairness one should acknowledge that these qualities of academic life are among its chief attractions for many.

The research, however, has serious limitations. It relies on interviews with just fifteen casual academics at two Western Australian business schools. The dataset skews decidedly mature: only five interviewees were under 40 (just one under 30), five were in their 40s, and five were aged 50-plus. A significant proportion of these interviewees were ‘career enders’ easing into retirement with part-time academic work, or experienced ‘industry experts’ working in universities alongside other careers. Such respondents understandably privileged ‘flexibility’ over stability. Only six of the fifteen interviewees were in categories of experience in which casualisation was felt in predominantly negative terms, such experiences being overrepresented among younger respondents. The research describes a qualitative spectrum of casualisation experiences but makes no attempt to assess their representativeness. Thus the bothsidesism of the language of the ‘double-edged sword’—positives and negatives exist as logical opposites rather than as quantitatively measurable phenomena.

Such research methods are fine so far as they go, but they are inadequate to support the extrapolation from nine interviewees with positive views of ‘flexibility’ to the pseudo-quantitative claim that ‘many’ casuals have the same experience. The anomalousness of the business school context and the maturity of the interview pool blind the authors to the reality of casualisation more generally as a practice of systematic exploitation of the cheap and precarious labour of mostly young postgraduates and early career researchers. Most casuals are not experienced ‘industry professionals’ who enjoy a side gig doing a little university teaching. The negative side of insecure work is also likely to be felt most keenly by those with carer responsibilities, those with disabilities, and those who cannot fall back upon personal, spousal or familial resources. Women are as likely as men to be on casual contracts across the sector as a whole (counting both academic and administrative roles), but are underrepresented in more secure senior roles, and overrepresented in teaching-only and research-only academic positions, most of which depend on casual and fixed-term contracts.

In this wider context, the arguments of the Conversation piece have appeared to many as strikingly tone-deaf. The problem is one of extrapolating from a small and unrepresentative dataset, and of attempting to build arguments upon methodologies that do not support them. Mistaking the exception for the rule merely provides cover for managerial cost-cutting at the expense of quality teaching and research, and of casual academics’ financial stability, health and wellbeing. I hope Wardale and her co-authors will read carefully the heartbreaking story published recently in The Atlantic on the death of Thea Hunter, a promising historian whose life was destroyed by a broken system. Hunter’s story represents a far more realistic picture of the cruel realities of casualisation.

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