Today’s post is the third and final part of our series on a recent controversial article in The Conversation about casualisation. The first part, André Brett’s response to that article’s arguments, is here; the second part, Joel Barnes’s analysis of the underlying research, is here. All views expressed in this series are those of the authors and contributors, and do not reflect the views of their employers, the Australian Historical Association, or any other groups with whom they are affiliated.
Many casually-employed historians and early career researchers (ECRs) have strong opinions about an article by Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson, and Yuliani Suseno that suggests how to make casual academic contracts ‘better’. One problem, however, is that many casuals and ECRs have not the time to prepare detailed responses, especially when this labour will not be remunerated. Some fear that they will not receive new contracts if they speak out. This is why we so often do not hear casual voices in discussions of casualisation, or why those voices mainly appear on social media. There is a lot of anger and discontent about casual employment in academia, but those who are exploited the most are also those least able to protest.
For this reason, the third part of this series adapts an idea that emerged in a Twitter discussion between Effie Karageorgos and Imogen Wegman (follow the links for their previous excellent contributions to this blog). It is a compilation of short—or not so short—responses to the Conversation article by early career academics in History who are, or recently were, employed casually in Australian universities.
The article claims that ‘many casual academics enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions’. I now work at three different institutions. One of these is thankfully online, so the work can be done anywhere, but I often have to drive between the other two, leaving a class at one to quickly make my way to the other. I do not have office space at either institution, so I carry all of my class materials around with me during the day. One institution will not allow me to have a key to the classroom I teach in every week, asking me to call security every time I want to enter the room. I have taught at this institution since early 2012, and was trusted with a key until the end of 2018. I think fondly to the time when I had a desk at both institutions, but the demands on space have meant that I have not been attached to an office I can work in for a few years. I do not know anybody who enjoys this type of flexibility.
The article also claims that some ‘enjoy the flexibility of not having to fulfil service requirements such as attending meetings and annual performance reviews’. I have worked at all three institutions since early 2012, and feel that I am as much a part of those institutions as anybody else who has worked there for the same amount of time. I want to know what is happening in my workplace, and I want to attend meetings, but I need to be paid for my time.
When I am not teaching, I am researching, writing, collaborating with other academics, writing grant and job applications—the same things that any full-time or tenured academic does with their non-teaching time. The difference is I am not paid for that time, yet my publications will often be credited to the institution I work at the same way the publications of those who are paid for their research will be. A certain percentage of a full-time academic’s weekly load is specifically allocated to ‘research’ or ‘administration’. If universities are going to rely on casuals to teach many, or in some cases most, of their classes, they also need to truly acknowledge them as members of the academic community—as researchers—by including a number of paid research hours in every casual teaching contract. This would increase the already high publication output of casual academics and provide a solid basis by which the university could claim these publications. It would also—more importantly for the casual academic—demonstrate that they trust and value casual academics as much as they do other members of staff.
It’s hard to know where to start. It’s not simply a matter of poor conditions in an immediate and material sense (the kind that make it impossible to save, plan a holiday, plan to have children, pay rent, etc.) but the long-term slow burn psychological effect: having to explain to family members again and again why you still don’t have a permanent job, why you work on weekends and why this does not mean you are ‘disorganised’, waking up every day to give yourself a pep talk about why your research is important and worthwhile, but also—and perhaps more importantly—the gradual grinding down of your confidence in the eyes of your permanently employed peers. Relentless precarity makes me depressed.
In its attempt to be ‘balanced’, this article completely elides the violence of casualisation. The casualisation of university teaching is not a valid hiring practice associated with a mix of ‘concerns’ and ‘benefits’, but rather a system of exploitation inspired by profit-maximising logic that does great harm to academics and imperils the future health of teaching and research. I would urge the authors to take seriously the way in which casual contracts destroy the health and research capabilities of many of Australia’s (and the world’s) most highly educated individuals, who would otherwise have enormous potential to live rich lives and engage in knowledge production that benefits us all.
This is a disturbing attempt to normalise casual labour in universities. The authors ignore that ECRs are particularly vulnerable to abuse under these contracts. I would agree that there may be some benefits; for instance, a semester of casual tutoring can be a good internship for a future career as a full-time lecturer. The problem is that full-time jobs have dried up in Australian higher education, especially for ECRs looking for postdoctoral fellowships and entry-level lecturing positions. Universities know that ECRs need job experience and are desperate to get anything teaching related on their CVs, so they can count on their unpaid labour and world-class expertise.
There are a number of holes in this piece, but I’ll note just a few:
1. ‘[Research shows that casual academics] regularly go beyond their contractual obligations’: This is an understatement. For a casual tutor to do their job, they must put in extra hours. A good example of this is where institutions pay tutors just 1 hour of marking for each student across a semester of work, including about 2 essays and maybe an exam or a class presentation. There is no way that all of this, including feedback and entering marks, can be done in that time. The same applies to provisions that allow just 1–2 hours of preparation time for classes.
2. Some casual academics ‘enjoy’ or ‘prefer’ having flexibility: I’m yet to meet an ECR who ‘enjoys’ their precarious work conditions. The authors confuse flexibility for inferiority—if casuals do not ‘have’ to attend meetings, it is because they are not invited or welcome in the first place.
3. Professional development opportunities are recommended: To be realistic, the only worthwhile professional development is proper job experience, including a full-time position allowing an ECR to focus on the course they are preparing and delivering. In other words, learning on the job, with an actual job.
Kirk Graham shared a document that he placed on record at the University of Queensland. It contains anonymous feedback from casuals that reveals the alarming conditions under which many have laboured. The below is a short selection of quotes, edited for further anonymity:
I received a very vague contract without hours or pay scales. I’d like to know why we’re being asked to sign vague contracts with no details and no clarity on how many hours and at what pay grade. Signing on the verbal promise I would get paid correctly felt pretty wrong.
My contract was incorrect, and this has remained ongoing. My pay situation has since been remedied, but it was a constant source of anxiety for the first eight weeks of the semester. I was frequently underpaid, despite numerous emails to staff; time and time again I found my bank account short. I often felt like I was ‘bounced around’ the office, so to speak, and nobody could (or would) help me. The School is becoming more and more reliant on their casual labour force but they seem to have a complete disregard, or a wilful ignorance, of the contributions we make and the work that we do to keep the School running.
We had to work without contracts for at least one subject, even though we repeatedly asked what was happening, with no response. [Three other problems listed.] I could go on. Everyone feels the same, but it seems I am the only one who has the guts to actually get angry about it. It seems nobody else will say anything because the job market is so competitive, nobody wants to jeopardise their career this early.
Casual markers and tutors are allotted hours of work at the beginning of the semester to which they must commit, but the School can reduce those hours arbitrarily. I think a lot of senior academics are simply blind to the material realities of precarity. Cognitive dissonance maybe, or a manifestation of survivor’s guilt?
For almost as long as I can remember, both of my parents have been self-employed. Throughout my childhood I learned a few key life lessons—take work when it is offered (even if you’re already busy), holidays are for other families, and if you get sick, that’s OK, but no one else will do that work so get ahead then catch up fast. Please don’t misunderstand, I experienced immense privilege in my childhood, love my parents dearly, and had a wonderful time. But I have always known the feast and famine of freelancing.
Today I, a self-professed genius (modesty is for the employed, not the jobseeker), find myself living in similarly precarious position. If I want a holiday, I will pay all the usual costs plus my own salary out of my own savings. If I get sick or am betrayed by my uterus and cannot leave the sofa for a day, I will not be paid. And if someone offers me work, I cannot afford to say no, because my contingency fund needs to be ready for the famine. There are few differences between casuals and freelancers, except the matter of choice. For most who have chosen to strike out alone, they have been allowed to balance out flexibility and autonomy, and all the pros and cons.
Casuals have not.
Let us not forget that in non-academic casual circles the precarity is just as real – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard ‘I lost my job, they just stopped giving me shifts’. Many casuals outside academia work multiple jobs, or are doing it to support their studies, or are studying in their few spare hours to get out of casual jobs. In this discussion we must not forget that excessive casualisation is a blight across all industries. At least in academia we usually know we have until the end of the project or semester. But that doesn’t make it a ‘better’ type of precarity, just different. The casual academic will go home to continue the work preparing a lecture that has to be finished, paid or not, or to work on their ‘publications record’ despite being utterly mentally wrecked. We can adjust our work hours to suit our lives, but that just leads to working on three jobs in one day.
Something has to give, and it’s the quality of the work. Every week thousands of research hours are lost as eager and keen researchers divert their attention away from exploring and communicating new ideas to explain (again, and somewhat ironically) how they have demonstrated that they have excellent time management. I despise how mercenary this system makes me. If I can’t afford the rent, no one else will pay it for me. More than that, it affects my loyalty to projects or institutions—there is little point in getting attached when you are paid by the hour. My tenured colleagues express sympathy and fight for reasonable casual pay rates, but in the same breath mention that the powers-that-be are developing a ‘research expansion plan’ that includes no extra hires.
But my concern is about more than my personal life in the gig-economy, it’s about the intellectual void this system creates. Those of us in the early years of academia aren’t fools, we know the statistics on our chances of staying, and when we leave we take our knowledge and our experience with us. If universities don’t actively encourage and support proper positions for ECRs, they are failing to create a succession plan. When several key staff members retire within a few months and step off the ladder, the diversity of knowledge, methods and backgrounds on the lower rungs is narrow. At the bottom of the ladder are the PhDs, holding it up for everyone else, reaching to climb onto that first rung. But the next occupied rung is far off the ground. With every round of promotions the gap between the groundlings and their senior colleagues grows. It becomes further to reach, a larger knowledge and experience gap to fill. A boss once told me that I should be training ‘myself out of a job’ by raising up my team members to take over from me. In casual roles, we fulfil many of the ‘essential selection criteria’ of junior faculty members, but miss developing the ‘admin’ skills – designing units from scratch, involvement with research/teaching committees, supervising students, all the things the authors of The Conversation article thought we must be happy to miss out on. We are not being trained to take over when the time comes.
Despite all my negativity, for me the system often works. I know my mental limits, I like being busy, I enjoy change. I am healthy, I don’t have dependents, 9–5 does not agree with me. Some of my work is outside academia and every side of my brain gets exercised. But those are all very personal reasons for why, in April 2019, this system is ok for me. Those are all things I’m thankful for, but they don’t give me the stability to develop healthy relationships, get hobbies, or to adopt a cat, let alone make it a sustainable career.
This week has seen the publication of some other important pieces on casualisation and precarity. Fabian Cannizzo blogged on the problems of being a ‘good’ early career academic. In the Campus Morning Mail is a short report that almost all universities in Victoria are dependent on a highly casualised workforce. The Age followed this with an article that includes Shan Windscript’s experiences of working for starvation wages.
There have, of course, been some unpleasant responses. It is one thing when these are comments from people outside academia who believe falsely that all university employees enjoy highly-paid, cushy, relaxed jobs. It is another when fellow academics who have been through these experiences tut-tut and tell casuals that ‘I got through it’. If your response is an implicit ‘I suffered and so should you’ rather than a refusal to let anyone else suffer, this says a lot about you—and none of it is good.