Q&A on “You Matter”, the AHA’s casualisation survey

Today I would like to welcome Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity to the AHA ECR blog. Lyndon and Romain compiled the report You Matter: The Australian Historical Association’s Casualisation Survey, which was released last November. We’ve been meaning to sit down for a chat for a while, and I must confess it has been mainly my fault for the delay, but the upside is that the report could scarcely be more topical right now.

If you want to read the full report, please view it here.

N.B. This interview reflects the opinions and perspectives of Romain Fathi and Lyndon Megarrity regarding casualisation in the history profession, based on questions framed by André Brett. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Historical Association.

Romain FATHI - Copy2

Dr Romain Fathi (Flinders University)

Let’s cut directly to the chase. One respondent to the survey, who you quoted in your report, wrote “Our university is currently experiencing broad curriculum changes that are sudden and brutal, taking even the academics by surprise. When such restructuring occurs, casual staff and prospective students hoping to obtain scholarships are the first to be struck off the list as the money dries up” (p.23). Little could they have imagined the situation that the entire higher education sector finds itself in as a result of COVID-19 and the federal government’s refusal to allow public universities to access the JobKeeper scheme. What does this crisis mean for ECRs? How can they be expected to survive?

Romain: ECRs are certainly the most vulnerable in this context. They no longer have a PhD scholarship and a contract to protect them. Given the current restrictions, they can’t travel to conferences to present their work, network and become better known, they have little institutional support and perhaps not many “left over” copies of archival documents from past research trips that would enable them to sit down and write while the storm passes. In the best of times casual academic work is a precarious condition that Covid is making even worse, as universities brace themselves for significant revenue shortfalls that may or may not last. I’m afraid this isn’t a positive story for casuals in academia (or elsewhere) and I believe that like other Australians they should have been part of the JobKeeper program.

In fact, beyond everybody’s good health, I have two concerns with the sector’s response to Covid. First, as a non-native, I am surprised by the attitude of the Australian Government toward the education system: it appears to have a kind of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ that is unhelpful. Education is a major resource for any nation, let alone for top-ranking OECD nations who need a highly educated population to further enhance their development. Coal will run out eventually and brains – or their lack thereof – is an asset that will remain. They might as well be strong ones, well-educated, well-informed and, dare I say, independent. Therefore, the argument that a government shouldn’t come to the rescue to one of the nation’s most important resources is beyond my understanding. As a historian, however, I can see that this shift isn’t new and that it is underpinned by a financial approach to education that several governments, left and right, have encouraged in the last four decades. My second concern is that some business-oriented universities may use this crisis to impose strategies that might succeed in attracting more dollars to the coffers momentarily but will significantly downgrade the quality and content of the education received. Tertiary education should be our most prized and valued institution, a public good worth cherishing. Petition your MP, our votes count.

Lyndon: The impact of COVID-19 on the university sector and the ECR employment situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Those are the hard facts of the situation and I wish that I was in a position to offer more hope and guidance. However, at some point, and it may be sooner than we imagine, there will be an improvement in job prospects for ECRs. It is at this very moment that the ECR and the job selection panel will have to meet each other half-way. The ECR must continue publishing and researching during this difficult period, but job selection panels also need to take into account the academic disruptions of COVID-19 when considering the skills and attributes of ECR applicants.

Megarrity LTM B&W

Dr Lyndon Megarrity (James Cook University)

We will return further to the COVID-19 crisis during our chat. Let’s talk a bit about preparing your report. Did any responses to the survey surprise or even shock you?

Lyndon: No. The survey mainly confirmed what I already know, partly through my own personal experiences of casualisation. The relative invisibility of casual academics compared to permanent academics, the lack of status within the profession regardless of years of casual teaching and research, and the precarity of casual work are themes which are familiar to most of us in this position.  I was not so much shocked but inspired by the resilience and continued enthusiasm of our survey participants for their chosen field.

Romain: As with Lyndon, sadly the responses neither surprised nor shocked me. I’ve been there myself and the worst part (I felt) was the isolation of not being able to speak your mind. If you criticise things too much (even if things are wrong) then work relationships may suffer and academic opportunities may vanish. So it’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place where you can’t complain, which is all the more alienating as you may end up thinking that something is wrong with you. The level of resilience one can observe in the answers provided by participants to the survey is admirable. It is also saddening, because a nation should not treat those among its most educated citizens this way. Beyond the human aspect, from a purely economic point of view it’s not rational to train someone for 20+ years and let an industry casualise them. Some respondents had positive stories, for sure, others heartbreaking, but overall, the survey presented a fairly sombre picture. And that’s disheartening because we deserve better and we can afford to do better for casuals. What shocked me in fact wasn’t the type of responses to the survey but the level of relative indifference (beyond casuals themselves and the AHA) once the report was released.

Is there anything that, in hindsight, you wish you’d asked?

Lyndon: It was a fairly comprehensive survey, which covered a large range of economic, social and cultural issues surrounding casualisation. If it was being conducted today, the impact of COVID-19 would probably be the focus of some questions relating to employment options. However, what I am pleased with is the extent to which over 150 casual staff expressed their views, shared their experiences, and offered suggestions for improvement.

Romain: The survey’s questions were discussed at exec level and every member made useful suggestions. Of course, retrospectively, you always wish you had asked such and such questions. But we had to be mindful as well: casuals are asked to do so many things for free – subjecting them to a very long survey would have been dishonest, eating up more of their time. Some certainly wrote well over a page of comments. I wish we had asked them about the impact of casualisation within their family and social lives, and if they felt understood by others, non-academics in particular.

Another “in hindsight” question. Writing these reports is always an exercise in selection, so is there a topic or theme you wish you had emphasised more? Are there any points that missed the final cut that you’d like to share? Any great quotes from respondents that you simply could not fit?

Lyndon: One piece of advice from a participant that didn’t make the cut was the notion that one should “Live in a large city with several universities rather than a provincial town with only one university”. This is a legitimate perspective, because those lucky enough to live in capital cities have greater potential to secure contracts at multiple universities. But Australia is a large country, and moving from the regions to the cities is not easy unless you have secured employment first. Furthermore, the students from regional areas who want to learn a range of history subjects, and research regional themes, deserve to have those opportunities. Convincing business-oriented universities of that argument is an important task for the profession in general.

Romain: I believe Lyndon and I tried to provide a digestible synthesis that covered most (if not all) aspects of what respondents had discussed. Of course, we had to present the view of the majority and find a way to present it – just like the work of the historian, this selection can’t be perfect. But we did it with honesty and tried to present divergent views on some matters when they were expressed. You know, presenting the information in a “some said… while others said… but in general terms, the picture is…” kind of narrative format. Providing a broad picture of the casualisation experience was important and the quantitative part of the survey allowed for this to happen. One thing we had to be mindful of was protecting people’s identity – some respondents went into a lot of personal/situational details and it’s a small world. Sharing too personal a story could have, inadvertently, revealed someone’s identity, so we paid attention to that.

There are sometimes tensions between casual historians and their securely employed colleagues, with claims that each does not understand the conditions under which the other group labours. Is this fair? How can we ensure solidarity among historians to build better communities and workplaces for everyone?

Lyndon: I think our report indicates that casual and permanent academics are so far apart in terms of their conditions and status that misunderstandings and tensions are bound to occur sometimes, unfortunately. An egalitarian environment, in which casual, academic and admin staff gather together socially, at least for weekly morning tea, is a step towards building better communities and workplaces. Some of the older hands will “hold court”, of course, but morning tea (perhaps attached to a regular seminar series) can also become a forum where the achievements and work of casual academics are acknowledged formally and informally. A culture in which the teaching and research expertise of casual academics is valued should be fostered.

Romain: Some casuals said they felt truly supported by permanent staff and others, not so much. This is a space which clearly wasn’t black or white and very much depended on peoples’ situations. What is clear, however, is that permanent staff can make things better if they wish to, by making sure that casuals are paid for what they do and treated as well as possible, as well as being included in meetings or being provided with a desk/office.

This report and its recommendations are a positive step in the AHA’s advocacy for its casual members. But what, realistically, can an association like the AHA achieve? Is advocacy enough? How can we gain meaningful action on the recommendations?

Romain: The AHA is an association that doesn’t have coercive powers. It also has an executive with a healthy variety of views. I feel that this fight is far from over and I do encourage casuals and ECRs to run for election, be part of the AHA executive and create change, little by little. Lyndon and I will be putting to the vote a motion at the next AGM to reduce the membership rate of casuals of 15%. We hope that the next Executive will continue to work with historians in casual positions to ensure cheaper access to the conference as well.

A perennial source of complaint from casual and postgraduate members is the cost of conferences and memberships in Australia, a complaint not confined to the AHA. Are these complaints reasonable? Why are costs so high, and can they be reduced?

Lyndon: Membership rates reflect the large range of activities and goals pursued by the AHA, including the journal and support for conferences. Conferences are expensive to run and cater, and the conference dinner costs reflect the desire of the restaurant or caterer to make a profit on a three-course meal for, say, 80-120 delegates. I think we can acknowledge that while these various fees may be reasonable for full-time academics, they are less affordable to casual academics. In terms of conferences, I think it is important for conference convenors to consider ways of making AHA conferences more accessible and inclusive for casuals, and it is certainly an issue I intend to pursue if re-elected as a member of the committee.

Let’s now talk about the broader sector—what should universities be doing to ensure we do not have an entire lost generation of scholars?

Lyndon: A number of things come to mind. After a few  years of teaching and/or publication, casual historians should generally be given the status of adjunct lecturers. Not only that, but such adjunct lecturers should be given the capacity and support to apply for small grants. Too much emphasis is placed on large expensive ARC projects: more money should be spread wider among the historical profession to encourage individual research, especially among casuals. Universities also need to invest further in the publication process (e.g. subsidies to university-based publishers) to ensure that good research among ECRs and Mid-Career academics gets published and recognised. Finally, universities must recognise that the concept of “subject-cutting” is a self-defeating form of cost-cutting: amalgamating a large number of subjects into a small number of broad, hurried overviews is a recipe for fewer students, less scholarship and less employment for the next generation of historians.

Beyond the Covid-19 crisis, talking generally, are universities shirking their responsibilities to casuals?

Romain: Well that’s part of the problem and why universities use casuals: to have limited contractual obligations toward them. One avenue is to work on the terms of the contracts at University level, imposing better practices through the Enterprise Agreement of each institution. The survey has enabled me to see that things change here as well. Little by little, university by university. These improvements range from better rates for marking and teaching to conversion of repeated casual contracts to permanent positions. Advocacy and seeking representation are working. Slowly, but it is working. Historians know that social change takes time, but it’s no reason to be standing by.

Some of the advice in the recent blog post on job interviews emphasised that applicants need to explain why they want a particular job. Selection committees are well justified in making sure that an applicant will be an engaged colleague who is pleasant to work with. The reality for casuals, however, is that jobs are so scarce that many talented people will take any job to pay the bills, and they will make great colleagues. Nobody is holding out for the perfect dream job—we do not have the sort of job market where people can pick and choose where to apply. Do selection committees need to be more realistic about the context of their applicants?

Lyndon: I think that the selection criteria for academic jobs need to be rethought: the expectations for “leadership”, “publication in leading journals” and “innovative teaching” are such that many casual staff are unable to compete because their contracts do not allow them to develop those skills compared to long-term permanent staff. The pressure on PhD students to publish and teach well before they have submitted is becoming pedagogically problematic: the postgrad’s focus should be on learning and growing through developing the best academic thesis they can. The quality of the resulting thesis should guide employment and postdoc opportunities more that the quantity of publications, in my view.

A lot of recommendations for casuals suggest the importance of building community—not just for advocacy, but for mental health, connections, and sociability. Your recommendation 9(iii) suggests this. Many casuals, however, are already working lengthy hours for inadequate payment, trying to advance their own (unpaid) research, and have significant other responsibilities such as childcare or barriers such as disability. These networks can be great means of support, but they require even more unpaid hours and energy. Is a solution truly a solution if it just asks casuals to find even more hours in the day to add another commitment? How do we save casuals from burnout?

Romain: I think there’s no definitive answer for that one and this very much depends on peoples’ preferences. Networks, while they take time, are worth building. There is immense comfort in knowing that you can turn to several colleagues that genuinely care about you, your research and how you are going. Finding out who these people are and nourishing these relationships is so important – perhaps not so much for the career but to feel good about one’s community, feel engaged with the discipline and getting honest feedback or support. There are colleagues that have become friends and that I could call virtually any time to talk about anything and they really make my academic world a better place. But again, everyone is different and while I enjoy being part of a community of historians, some people prefer finding a community outside of their workplace.

Time to be frank: how long should casuals stick it out? Do you think there is a general rule of thumb? I ask this question not to suggest that it’s a failure to choose a non-academic career path—it quite obviously is not, and some graduates have no intention to enter academia or they find an academic career not to their liking. But, for many, it is the goal, and it is what they have trained to do. No amount of extolling other career paths can change the fact that they might consider it a failure to leave academia. What do you say to these people?

Lyndon: There is a difference between leaving a physical institution of employment (i.e. the university) and leaving academia. Many independent scholars are able to do good solid historical work outside the system through books, journal articles and other means. If you have fire in the belly and have something to say, you will find an audience for your work.

Romain: The survey suggested that the majority of respondents did not continue in casual academic work after three years post conferral. That’s what the data clearly showed. But data doesn’t talk and unfortunately the reason “why” is unclear because this wasn’t one of our survey questions: the finding was an observation based on respondents’ year of PhD conferral versus the number of years during which they have been a casual. After 3 years, there is a significant drop. I suppose that after several years, it becomes financially untenable to remain a casual in the academic sector. But I can only speculate. Some will get a full-time job or a postdoc in academia but those are the minority. You asked us to be frank so I’ll try to be just that. A PhD isn’t a thesis anymore, whether we like it or not. If you haven’t published articles in top journals, been to conferences, networked, taught, organised one or more conferences and done “all the things” by the time your PhD is conferred, your prospects may be limited, even more so if you are an international candidate because your Confirmation or Enrolment expires when you hand in your (unexamined) thesis, so you are no longer invited to stay in Australia. So in many ways, honest conversations about academic jobs need to happen from Day 1 into the PhD program and here academics have a role to play.  Most graduates with a PhD in history will end up in other sectors of the economy, and a good deal actually choose this and live a happy professional life.

I think it would be interesting to conduct a a “5-year post PhD” survey to see what people do after a PhD in History, where they live, if they use the skills they refined during their candidature, if they are happy with their non-academic job, how much they earn etc. I suppose – at least from what I have been able to observe around me – that the majority don’t stick around academia and settle for a stable job where their skills are valued. In this sense, the picture is perhaps less dark than we think. But for those who remain in the game, the pressure is there because it’s like gambling: the more you have invested, the harder it becomes to turn away from the card table. Overall, I recommend to any casual (and PhD candidates at an early stage of their candidature) to fully read our report and make that assessment for themselves, as there is enough data and views expressed within it for everyone to weigh up for how long they should pursue in the sector post PhD conferral.

We’ve talked a lot about the position of casuals and the challenges they face, but are all of our proposals and schemes really a desperate dance around the obvious—the only real solution for casuals is meaningful job security?

Romain: Yes it is. But it may have to be in another sector. There is a finite number of students per year, one has to be realistic. The major issue shown in our report is the way casualisation has become systemic rather than a positive variable of adjustment for each party. By this I mean that the experience of being a casual worker can offer benefits (training, money, flexibility – often something pointed out by the “newest” casuals in the survey) but when it becomes the only prospect, the negatives accumulate, as also pointed out by the respondents. Clearly, where there is proven recurrent work, casual positions ought to be converted to full-time positions. Overall though, if one looks at the amount of PhD graduates coming out of Australian universities, it is clear that there isn’t an academic position for each of these graduates and that seems to be the norm in other countries too. And this is why I believe that universities ought to develop a responsibility toward their PhD candidates: right from the get-go they should tell them that the likelihood of securing a permanent academic position is very, very thin. They may be scared to say that because they need PhD recruits to receive funding, but I think that’s an excuse not to actually address the issue and train PhD candidates for alternative careers.

Lyndon: In an ideal world, I would agree that meaningful job security is the solution to the problem of casualisation. Unfortunately, in the real world, it is clear that until politicians and more university leaders value the cultural and social benefits of social science and the arts, casuals in these areas will be the first to go and the last to be rehired in difficult economic times. Gaining wider awareness of casual circumstances, alleviating hardship, and celebrating academic achievements are all important elements of improving the plight of casual academics.

Romain: Graduates with a PhD in history have valuable skill that many workplaces look for: research skills, project management skills, organising skills, writing and presentation skills, interpersonal skills, resilience, etc. In other words, they are highly employable. Yet, at the end of the PhD, or even as an ECR, it seems that many find themselves wondering whether they are going to have a job at all – this wouldn’t provoke such fear of the unknown if graduate schools were providing professional training and preparing PhD candidates for post PhD life. Some of them are starting to do this, so here as well, change is coming.

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  1. Pingback: New AHA ECR Blog   – The Australian Historical Association

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