The casualties of academia: a response to The Conversation

In August last year, the NTEU reported that two in three people employed by Australian universities do not have secure employment. In other words, over half the work conducted in universities is undertaken by employees who do not have an ongoing contract. Of these workers, 43% are employed on a casual basis, while 22% are engaged on a fixed-term contract. To put it in perspective, only one-third of university staff have secure employment, while three in four Australian employees enjoy the benefits of secure work and entitlements.

Therefore, if you or someone you know works at a university, your job, or their job, is most likely precarious. Moreover, if you’re a casual academic, you’re just as likely to attain a contract as you would be if you worked at McDonald’s. Their secure employment rate is 21%. At Monash University, one of the worst providers of secure work in Victoria, the secure employment rate is 27%. Working at an Australian university is just as precarious as working at Mickey D’s. Except there the parking is free and you get a toy with your lunch. Sometimes, the Wi-Fi is better, too.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, precarious is an adjective that means ‘in a dangerous state because of not being safe or held firmly in place.’ If something is precarious, it is unstable or under threat. A precarious job is one that is insecure, subject to change (and chance), and dependent on circumstances outside of one’s control. A precarious situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. Let’s use it in a sentence: ‘Most people do not enjoy precarious work.’

If you’re a casual academic, you are an expert first of all in precarity.

You know, for example, that there is no such thing as ‘casual’ work. You prefer the oxymorons ‘permanent casual’ or ‘long-term casual’ because, like many of your colleagues, you’ve been working full-time hours for years now – just without the benefits.

As a casual, you have no annual leave, no holiday leave, no research leave, no carer’s leave, no domestic violence leave, and – less critically, since you’re never unwell – no sick leave. You don’t have access to funding for conference fees or travel, or any form of professional development. There’s no remuneration for designing and re-designing teaching materials and curricula; no compensation for attending meetings, organising readings, digitalising resources, peer-reviewing articles, replying to e-mails, or hosting negotiations with Jenny from Payroll.

You’re not reimbursed for mentoring undergrads, supervising projects, reviewing coursework, editing grants and proposals, or promoting your faculty during O-Week. And you can forget those long, drawn-out hours spent on cross-marking and double marking and moderating. You don’t even have access to the photocopier. At the end of semester, when your e-mail account is deactivated, you will no longer be able to borrow books from the library and the swipe access to your office will expire. And by office, we mean the kitchenette where your hot-desk is located, when the space is free.

So, what do you do?

First of all, you don’t complain. You earned this job through months of unpaid labour, years of study, and the gradual accumulation of a life-long debt. However, the honour of a casual appointment is bestowed upon you, and later stripped away from you, in a popularity contest judged at the discretion of a unit coordinator.

To be given casual work is a gift.

And – to expand on the Maccas metaphor – a lot of people want to eat at this restaurant. In fact, there’s a queue behind you, and this queue is long. As you’ve noticed, it takes some time to get ahead. When you do finally reach the front counter, you must conduct your business quickly and without fuss. For the sake of everyone, you must not complain. The people in this queue are just as hungry as you, and just as desperate. Some of them are sure that they’ve been waiting longer than you. Others are smarter: they’ve beaten the crowd and ordered ahead. Others are smarter yet: they have a friend behind the counter. Everyone wants their Happy Meal and the toy they’ve been promised before it sells out. More importantly, no one wants to stand in a queue where – through some strange combination of faculty restructures and budget cuts – you can never get ahead.

No one chooses to be casual.

Saying ‘yes’ to a casual job is not really a choice when your choices are: casual job or no job at all.

Choosing between a bad option and a worse option – as we see time and again in politics – is a contextual dilemma: one that reflects the unavailability of better options and more effective forms of objection, and one that, by extension, poses serious questions about the assumption that freedom of choice is synonymous with freedom itself.

So, imagine your surprise when last month The Conversation published an article about the ‘benefits’ and ‘challenges’ of casualisation in academia.

Let’s start with the benefits.

According to the article’s authors – three senior academics who are presumably tenured – many casuals ‘enjoy the flexibility of working across different institutions.’ These mystery people should reveal themselves because the authors of this article are extremely interested in meeting them.

Working across multiple universities – what has affectionately been dubbed ‘taxi-cab teaching’ – is the equivalent of holding down several jobs just to pay your rent. Except, if you’re a casual, you won’t be catching a cab to work because you don’t have a fare allowance. Or any allowance, in fact.

If you’re a casual, you work multiple overlapping contracts at different universities because you need to eat, and unfortunately, the hours that you’re paid at Uni A are not enough to cover your groceries for the week, nor is the wage you receive at Uni B. So, you work at Unis A, B, and C, because you need food and shelter and running water. And you sleep under your desk at Uni C because you can’t afford your rent. You don’t sleep there because you love ‘the flexibility’.

In fact, the Workplace Gender Equality Agency does not consider casual work to be flexible at all: ‘flexible work’ means that you have adjustable work hours and access to paid leave. As a casual, you take whatever you can in order to pay your bills, especially during the many weeks of the year – often as many as twenty-two – when you have no income at all.

Let’s not confuse flexible work with poverty and functional homelessness.

Let’s also remember that if you work at different universities, you have multiple supervisors to report to, different institutional policies and expectations to uphold, and various pay dates and cut-offs to remember if you want to get paid.

Your classes might be scheduled on the same day, and the campuses that you work at might be located not minutes but hours apart. On those long drives in peak-hour traffic, you won’t be reimbursed for the petrol you use or the hundreds of kilometres that you clock. You won’t be able to claim your trip between home and work because the ATO says this kind of travel is ‘private’. When your back aches from driving, and you’ve just filled up your tank for the third time this week, or you’ve missed the last bus home and can’t afford an Uber, you won’t be thinking how much you enjoy your job. You won’t be thinking, ‘Wow, it’s so flexible!’. You’ll be using another word that starts with f.

But that’s okay because, according to The Conversation, there are other advantages of casual work. For example, as casuals, we ‘don’t have to fulfill service requirements, such as attending meetings or annual performance reviews.’

Actually, we do go to a number of meetings, not always voluntarily and, again, usually without getting paid. Sometimes, for example, a well-meaning supervisor will ask us to stay back for a ‘quick catch-up’ that inevitably lasts an entire afternoon. Other times, we meet with students after class because they don’t understand the assessment the lecturer has set.

It’s true that we aren’t invited to department meetings or staff meetings, and our colleagues are quick to remind us of our good fortune in this respect. ‘You’re lucky you don’t have to attend,’ they laugh. But here’s the kicker: most of us would like to attend meetings in which decisions are made about our workloads, the courses we teach, and the training we receive. Most of us would like to be included in the decisions that affect us. And since we do more than half of all undergraduate teaching, and teaching brings in more revenue than research and consultancy combined, we should have a seat at the table. In fact, as the lowest-paid academics who bring in the most money, we should have the table. And an office space! And staff profiles, too!

Yet career-development programmes that are designed to help casuals transition into permanent employment have been cut, at the same time as face-to-face classes are being replaced with online content. Casuals are paid minimal preparation time for a class, and what usually equates to only twenty minutes per student for an entire semester of marking and moderation. If your class is overloaded, your adjusted hourly rate will be less than the minimum wage.

If we don’t have job security and enough money to support ourselves, then our non-compulsory attendance of meetings is an exclusionary device, a way to keep us powerless and on the fringes, a mechanism to keep us quiet while our labour – the wealth generated from the services that we provide – is dispersed into marketing, bonuses for management, and unnecessary infrastructure.

Students subsidise infrastructure and research as part of their tuition fees. A 2017 report by the productivity commission claims that tuition fees generate a teaching surplus’ of $1.5 billion. At the same time, managers carve out bonuses for lowering the cost of running courses, essentially pinching the very funds that casuals and students bring in, all the while claiming that there isn’t enough in the budget to pay for extra marking or sick leave or professional development. But we’re not the only ones ripped off when teaching is underfunded: our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions too.

In the United Kingdom, the National Audit Office reports that students are feeling ripped-off, largely because they sense neglect in terms of where the cash is spent, which is not in their classroom, though the room itself might be very flash. In this gig economy – a cycle of exploitation that outsources the most important work, and which is based primarily on profit maximisation – it is not only us who suffer. It is our students too, and they are starting to catch on.

In 2017, the Human Rights Commission on sexual assault and harassment in Australian universities found that constant staff turnover means that students cannot build relationships with their teachers. Arming casual academics with adequate training in pastoral care – including how to respond appropriately to reports and disclosures of sexual assault – is difficult when staff aren’t paid for training or, worse, are excluded from education programmes altogether. As a result, sexual assault goes unreported because trusted teachers who work on the frontline keep disappearing, and students and even staff may experience vicarious trauma. Poor training, combined with a high employee turnover, only creates additional barriers to reporting, which means that the most vulnerable students are lost in the most insidious of ways.

Naturally, general morale and wellbeing is affected. But still, the benefits! The flexibility!

According to the article, another benefit of casualisation is that casual staff have ‘high levels of commitment’ and ‘regularly go beyond their contractual obligations.’

Of course, this is true. Two-thirds of staff carrying out unpaid work is a huge money-saver for an institution.

As casuals, we aren’t paid to meet with students or to engage with them online. We aren’t paid to enter grades or remark papers. We don’t have workload points or a special allowance for service. We aren’t paid to publish, even though universities will happily claim links to our research by virtue of our notional working relationship with them.

So, why do we do it?

Initially, we work for free because we believe the lies we’re told. That it’s a good experience. That it will look great on your CV.

At some point, we see through that. And yet, even then, we continue to slog away. We continue to work freely and voluntarily, in our own time and at our own expense, because we’re passionate about our work and committed to those values that universities claim to espouse: innovation, progressive thinking, opportunity for all.

We care about our students and their work. We don’t want them to drop out. We understand what it’s like to feel anxious, unsettled, and unsure about the future. We remember wanting to belong at university, and in the process, not realising that our teachers are just clinging on too. We know what it means to be in a precarious position.

Why suggest that casual work is ‘something of a double-edged sword’ when our experience doesn’t cut both ways?

The very title of article is offensive: ‘Casual academics aren’t going anywhere, so what can universities do to ensure learning isn’t affected?’

The presumption here is that casual academics have nowhere else to go – that beyond the university, we’re unemployable. Even though our work security is dependent on the same qualifications that permanent staff have attained, our value is dismissed. And here is where that idea of casual work as a ‘gift’ germinates. If management really believe that their own graduates, holding their own qualifications, have nowhere else to go, then perhaps they should be considering the ethics of manufacturing those degrees and selling them. Or else we’re all working in what the NTEU calls a McUniversity. And no one, it seems, is lovin’ it.

Perhaps this is why a new genre of journalism, quit lit, has formed around the testimony of ex-academics, producing sometimes hopeful articles about life after academia.

Ultimately, what the Conversation contributors fail to communicate is that casualisation is not a valid hiring practice with ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ but a system of exploitation that brutalises academics and imperils not only teaching and research, but the spirit of inquiry itself.

The closest the article comes to acknowledging this is the lone comment that ‘casual academic contracts have none of the benefits of continuing contracts.’ Yet the insensitive and misleading assumptions that the authors perpetuate undermine any real sense of understanding or empathy for those who are stuck without a viable path to a secure future – or even know if they’ll have work next semester.

Granted, the article claims to advocate for university administration to manage their casual staff ‘more effectively and equitably’, and to offer more permanent positions. At the same time, however, the authors suggest that casual staff ‘pose risks’ to student satisfaction and to the quality of their learning experience.

This myth vilifies the very people who work at the interface between students and the university, and who play a significant role in improving participation and retention. Also, let’s not forget that our work doesn’t go unchecked. Each semester, we’re subject to a number of surveys, designed by a centralised ‘quality manager’ and completed by students. These surveys aren’t so deadly when you’re permanent and teaching is only one component of your paid workload. As for casuals, however, no one has to fire us or explain what we did wrong: they just don’t invite us back.

Instead of engaging in a serious conversation about the problems of casualisation – instead of asking why it is that casuals academics ‘aren’t going anywhere’ or why reducing reliance on a casual workforce should be a priority of university leaders – the authors fixate on casuals themselves as the problem. Instead of identifying or even acknowledging the different types of casuals who comprise the academic underclass, they heap career casuals, industry casuals, and PhD-candidate-casuals together.

In doing so, the authors elide the systematic brutality that casuals experience every day.

If the tables were turned, how would permanent staff cope with the two-thirds of teaching now in their hands? Would they miss the burden of safety that comes with a contract? Would they enjoy the flexibility? The article’s title accepts – therefore absolves university management for – institutionalising casualisation. Yet all forms of exploitation have benefits for some.

Perhaps even more problematic than the publication of this dangerous and misguided article is The Conversation’s response to its reception. In response to the backlash on Twitter and the push by several academics for a right of reply, the editors cited their ‘no response’ policy and encouraged readers to reply to the article in the comments section instead: a move that seems at odds with the publication’s mandate, which is – as their name suggests – to facilitate conversation and debate. Perhaps they could start by finding ways to pay their casual academic contributors since, as we have already pointed out, casual teachers aren’t paid to publish. Having any conversation, for us, means more unpaid labour.

The Conversation – which has the audacity to ask its unpaid contributors for donations – claims to ‘set the standard in journalism best practice’. Yet its ‘no payments’ policy skews it towards tenured academics, making it a very narrow representation of academia. If The Conversation so venerates research expertise and judgment, then a stronger sense of research ethics needs to be reflected in their charter, especially with regard to protecting contributors and reducing harm for authors and subjects alike. Some recognition of the precarious working conditions of potential contributors would also be welcome.

Casual academics are not the problem. The inequalities facing students are equal to those of their teachers. If universities are to deliver quality education to their students, as well as foster a thriving research community, then research and teaching need to be intimately paired and supported, starting with awarding ongoing contracts to casuals. Advocating for better working conditions is the only way forward. The system pits casuals against each other. One casual can’t effectively object on their own, from within the queue. But as the largest group of teachers in universities, casual academics are certainly powerful enough to ask for what they need when they are united.

Not only is creating more ongoing contracts and better conditions for casuals a smart business move if universities are to retain their biggest revenue generators, but it is the only ethical way forward.

Management at all levels should be asking themselves: what is a university?

Is it a place where academic freedom, diversity, and progressive education create intelligent and engaged citizens? Or is it a place primarily of enterprise: one that strives for profitability and efficiency above all? Do we support our teachers or do we exploit them? Do we make citizens out of students or do we make shareholders out of customers? Do we want to lead by example and foster a fair and inclusive peer-led academy? Or should we be teaching our students early that the market is competitive and that you’re only as valuable as what employers can get away with paying you?

Finally, university management should remember who pays their bills, and every now and then it wouldn’t hurt to include with the invoice a simple thank you.



Image: Inside the University of Sydney Quadrangle, Flickr

Kate Cantrell

Kate Cantrell teaches Creative Writing and English Literature at USQ. From 2015 to 2016, she was a Visiting Lecturer at City, University of London, as well as an Honorary Research Fellow in Widening Participation at King’s College London. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in several magazines and journals, including Meanjin, Meniscus, Kill Your Darlings, and The Lifted Brow. Her research interests include Australian memoir and travel writing, and representations of wandering. You can follow her on Twitter as @kate_cantrell.

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Kelly Palmer

Kelly Palmer teaches Media and Communication at QUT. She has served as Acting Secretary on the QUT branch of the NTEU, and she has represented the university at National Council. She is passionate about widening participation and runs interdisciplinary workshops for Queensland students and teachers, as well as with local libraries and the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre. Her PhD explores class and belonging on the Gold Coast, and her fiction has been published in Voiceworks and Swamp. You can follow her on Twitter as @KellyAnnePalmer.

More by Kelly Palmer ›

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  1. Thanks for the article, Kate and Kelly. It’s well written and stirring. My thesis, “The Precariat PhD: on the university system and the academic underclass” features a chapter on academic quit-lit and a case study on sessional teaching. It’s currently under examination and I’ve been feeling the suspense and gloom that this process brings. Your article has revitalised my spirit. Many thanks and all the best.

    1. Hi Christian,
      I would love to hear/read more about your research. Contact Kate or me on Twitter if you have the time/energy. Thanks for engaging with these ideas. Kelly

  2. This article mirrors my experiences exactly, so thank you to both Kate and Kelly. I’ve been a university casual for seven years, and I now see more job postings for casual lecturing positions than ever before. What this tells me and all other casual academics is that we are only valuable to our employers when it suits them, and we don’t deserve the same benefits and job security as full time academics despite doing the same amount of work. And as you point out, often I have no other choice but to accept casual work, or else I’ll be unemployed. Thanks again for this significant article.

  3. An excellent article, a very engaging well informed read (appreciated the Maccas analogy!) and sadly accurate of working conditions in higher education for many people. Bring on an enquiry or even a royal commission, universities have completely lost their public mandate and become corrupted “commercial” institutions. Congratulations to the authors, I hope this gains traction.

  4. Hello Kate and Kelly (if I may). Thank-you for this excellent article and your considered critique of The Conversation piece and its responses. The men in my family were seafarers and dockers, the women in service/ shop-work … all casual. They fought for union rights including job security. Across the board we’re now witnessing the erosion of those hard-won rights with casualisation rife and working conditions severe, masking the real rate of under-employment. Worker exploitation in universities and colleges has infiltrated every element of their functioning – from the privatisation/ out-sourcing of cleaning, catering and support services through to unprotected research and teaching contracts often in the ‘gift’ of department heads. It is indefensible, yet without a hint of irony this profound attack on workers’ rights is recast as ‘opportunity’, ‘flexibility’, ‘just-in-time’, ‘choice’, etc. Sessional appointments, hourly pay, ‘hot desking’, inadequate personal tutorial time, uncertain futures, library access, unpaid administration and marking, no support for academic conferences or professional development etc. leave people exhausted, under-valued and disillusioned. This has an undeniable personal toll while diminishing the institution’s responsibilities to its students. Finally, in response to the offence caused to those employed on casual contracts the authors talk of ‘balancing’ the pros and cons of casualisation. Really? With the exception of a minority of tutors who – by choice – enjoy teaching one or two courses, the harsh realities of exploitation for the majority have no pros but only the threat of uncertain futures – for themselves, their families, their students.

  5. Thank-you for this excellent article and your considered critique of The Conversation piece and its responses. The men in my family were seafarers and dockers, the women in service/ shop-work … all casual. They fought for union rights including job security. Across the board we’re now witnessing the erosion of those hard-won rights with casualisation rife and working conditions severe, masking the real rate of under-employment. Worker exploitation in universities and colleges has infiltrated every element of their functioning – from the privatisation/ out-sourcing of cleaning, catering and support services through to unprotected research and teaching contracts often in the ‘gift’ of department heads. It is indefensible, yet without a hint of irony this profound attack on workers’ rights is recast as ‘opportunity’, ‘flexibility’, ‘just-in-time’, ‘choice’, etc. Sessional appointments, hourly pay, ‘hot desking’, inadequate personal tutorial time, uncertain futures, library access, unpaid administration and marking, no support for academic conferences or professional development etc. leave people exhausted, under-valued and disillusioned. This has an undeniable personal toll while diminishing the institution’s responsibilities to its students. Finally, in response to the offence caused to those employed on casual contracts the authors talk of ‘balancing’ the pros and cons of casualisation. Really? With the exception of a minority of tutors who – by choice – enjoy teaching one or two courses, the harsh realities of exploitation for the majority have no pros but only the threat of uncertain futures – for themselves, their families, their students.

  6. An excellent article, Kate and Kelly. Thank you very much for expressing exactly how I feel about being a casual academic. After 5 years as a sessional, I am moving into the legal industry as the disadvantageous of casual work are just too overwhelming.

  7. My own excellent 7 year full time university experience was in the 1970s. How things have changed for the worst! Casualisation equals exploitation, leading to poor outcomes.
    Those poor outcomes are now apparently exacerbated by the universities’ hunt for cash by admitting burgeoning numbers of international students. Thankyou for the excellent essay!

  8. Thank you for this. Like many other casuals, I was infuriated by the Conversation article, and this articulates so many of the underlying premises that I raged against.

  9. Such an excellent article, deeply researched and glowing with wholly justified, softly incandescent rage. You articulate the daily conditions and structural inequalities of casuals so clearly. Perhaps this will be a catalyst for change: naming the problem, forcing it into the sunlight for all to behold.

  10. I had no idea and am so sorry. My tertiary education was as a part-time mature age student in the ’90s. It was the only way I could do it but at the second graduation, I could see the significant change in university culture. In five years, everything had become commercial. It is hard to believe that humanist educational institutions could become so exploitative. I hope public exposure will help towards change and thank you both for your courage.

  11. Why, then, do this work? It is a terrible way to try to sustain oneself. No one in academia (music, business, dance, biology, programming, advertising, etc) is guaranteed a job in their field. I regularly see those hoping for a career in academia lamenting the lack of permanent (or any!) jobs. Yes, it’s very very very tough and there is a lot of competition for the few jobs that do exist.

    Not everyone who studies piano performance in conservatory is going to make a living on the concert stage, and in fact, precious few will. Piano students know this, even as they aspire to a performance career; they understand the reality of the situation. Do aspiring academics do the math and understand it’s unlikely they will make their living (or at least a decent living) teaching university? So why not take those excellent skills one has acquired and apply them elsewhere? Yes, you love to teach; piano performance majors love to perform. You both have to eat, however, and pay bills, and sometimes — many times, for most people — that means finding another way to make a living, and another way outside of that to do what you love.

    1. Please correct me if I am mistaken.

      Are you saying that work in higher education is on par with show business?

      1. Agreed, it’s a ridiculous stance to compare academia and being a professional musician.

        Reason being, there are far less spaces/venues to play live music these days compared to, say, the heyday of ‘pub rock’ in late 70s-80s.

        In universities, however, there are far more students than ever before, who pay far more money than they did in the past (both domestic and international students).

        If you believe that only “stars” should/will be able to work in academia, you’ve swallowed the neoliberal takeover hook, line & sinker.

    2. God, more codswallop about how job security is a “privilege”. We’ve heard this before and it’s designed to demean and shrink confidence, so that we shut up and do nothing about these conditions. Look, Joey, if the uni just doesn’t have room for casuals, why are there so many of us working in the system? Why are there less permanent roles with far more students than ever before? Why are there so many casuals who’ve worked in the system for ten, twenty years? That’s not “casual”. If the 9000 casual staff at the University of Melbourne walked off the job come Monday I can guarantee you the uni would notice. We ARE making a living as academics, we do the bulk of the teaching, marking and meeting with stressed students. We research in our time and when we publish a paper the uni takes a credit. We’re not sitting at home in front of the keyboard with fuzzy dreams of ‘hitting the big time.’ Give me a break! Have a think about the flimsiness of your premise before you draw such a long bow next time.

  12. Having done both casual and honorary posts in several universities as well as proper contracts I have to concur with most other if not all of the points made. I hear now a dominant assumption-expilicitly- that the unis are corporates with all the cognitive dissonance between processes and actual managerialism “values” this now indicates. Like hospitals unis now extract a massive return from underpayment and exploitation of highly motivated people

  13. What’s more, casualisation (and also fixed-term employment) should be considered a human rights issue.

    Why should anyone anywhere have to work for years without sick leave and annual leave?

    At the very least all academics teaching a Semester for the first time should get 6 month contract, or if they will be teaching 2 Semesters they should get a 12 month contract.

    After their first year of employment (i.e. 2 semesters of work) they should be made permanent.

  14. Kate and Kelly, this is a really excellent and timely investigation of a dystopian reality that Orwell, Atwood and McCarthy together probably couldn’t have dreamed up. I would have read it sooner were May not the month when all of the nightmares of the “casual’s” fight for survival coalesce into a marathon of marking, for several different subjects in which the assessments all fall due at the same time.

    Two points that might be added: first, in a career where thinking is presumably paramount, the sessional academic does not have the luxury of feeling as though their thinking time might somehow be remunerated. When you lie awake the night before a lecture thinking about how you are going to structure it, or worrying about whether the technology in the room is going to fail you, that’s a freebie for the university. Same as it is when you’re watching TV at home and you see something on the news that relates to the unit you are currently developing, so you run off to make some notes for the next day.

    Sessionals might get acknowledged for the work they do reading the set text or sitting at a desk writing up their notes for a lecture or tutorial, even if the money earned is probably not going to cover the actual effort put in. But all of the extraneous thinking and worrying and “connecting” that is part of being an engaged scholar melts into air when it comes to sessional academics actually being compensated for it. (At least in bed at night a tenured staff member can put aside the added worry of whether they will have a job next month.)

    Second, it is disturbing how casuals are left to deal with that paragon of quality measurement, the student survey. For many, this can mean receiving a kick up the ass from a disgruntled student, in the form of a personal attack on your ability/integrity, long after a unit has concluded, payment has ceased and all access to the institution’s human resources has been cut off. I have had the Kafkaesque experience of trying (and failing) to have unacceptably nasty student comments about a tutor removed from the record: it’s about as edifying an experience as trawling through the “comments” section of an article on The Conversation (perhaps the only known corporation which can match tertiary institutions when it comes to working out how to get something for nothing).

    At a seminar a while ago I listened while the speaker compared some hierarchy he was discussing with working in a university. He scored big laughs from the tenured academics in the room by comparing the lowest rung on his hierarchy with its academic equivalent: the Level A. How easily, in situations like this, those whom you rightly term precarious are unthinkingly elided from the scholarly hierarchy by the very people who rely on them to support their research and teaching.

    I’ve often though myself lucky that one of the institutions I work for has at least provided me with a reasonably permanent/private workspace, where I can keep a box of tissues and store a few books. Your piece has made me question why I should ever have considered such benefits a matter of luck.

  15. Dean, that description of the seminar sounds awful – Casuals really are invisible, aren’t they? I’ve had some of the same sentiment as a fixed-term general staff member, including my management implying that I’m not in a worse position really than permanent members in my team and then going on to treat me entirely differently…

    Part of the problem re. the academic side of things seems to be the over-valorisation of “intelligence” in Universities – what does it even mean to be a star? Doesn’t make you a good teacher, necessarily.

    Anyway, there needs to be mass action by those in insecure work (as well as by tenured/permanent staff, who are in a safer position).
    The NTEU needs to do more, and the pathetically corporatist PSU.
    This is the only way I feel this can be improved. As well as, perhaps, taking employers who have ‘ongoing’ non-permanent staff to the courts.

  16. What a wonderful place of privilege this point of view has sprung. The rates of pay for an hour of a casual academic’s time (after a cursory Google search) ranges from $73-149 per hour. That is a fairly high rate of pay relatively speaking, for any type of job manual and non-manual labour alike. To compare the plight of a casual academic to that of a casual McDonald’s employee seems quite a stretch especially when a ‘Mickey D’s’ casual pay rate ranges from $8-25 per hour.

    Although you’re referencing rates of ‘secure employment’ in a workforce, not rates of pay please beware! If you are working at McDonald’s over the age of 21 with limited options because of your level of education and/or access to other career opportunities, I doubt getting a toy with your Happy Meal using your staff discount is of any consolation. You probably won’t be accessing Wi-Fi during your shift because you’d rather escape the odour of deep-fried sizzling fat on your half an hour break. I could almost guarantee at the end of your shift you won’t be collecting your car from the free parking lot, on minimum wage there’s little chance you outright own anything you’re not paying back in crippling monthly instalments, especially not a luxury item. The casualisation of every workforce is the looming reality for almost all sectors. Of course, (the collective) ‘we’ should fight for what is fair and for what is right. Secure employment for all employees in every sector should be made a priority in organisations especially when there seems to be copious funds to line the pockets of top executives. However, if you’re going to use metaphors to make very valid points, especially from a place privilege (given your level of education and the opportunities inevitably afforded to you) be sure you’re not comparing apples with oranges.  

    1. Those scales are about right, maybe even a little under-estimated. What you very obviously do not understand is that a casual “hour” of tutoring or lecturing includes preparation for those classes.

      So, for example, for the “privilege” of being paid $180 to deliver a lecture, one spends many hours preparing, not to mention the rest of the time where you need to keep up with your field/s generally in order to be in any way competent to deliver a lecture in the first place; and said lecture might be given in a theatre of 200 or more people, a stressful enough experience, let alone not knowing whether your efforts will get you an invite back a year later to pocket another $180.

      Next time you try comparing apples with oranges, try to make sure you’re not holding a lemon.

    2. This isn’t how casual academic pay works. Lectures might be paid at $150/hour – for a maximum of 1-2 hours. The preparation time is usually minimum 3 hours (if you’ve given it before) or 8-24 hours if it’s a new topic/ new subject. That max $300 is quickly less appealing once you realise and/or experience the effort required. Tutorials are usually paid at $35-55 an hour – but less if you teach the same tutorial twice. Again -preparation time is assumed usually at a rate of 1.5 hours (I.e for a 2 hour tutorial you’ll spend at least 3 hours preparing. You get paid the high hourly rate for the 2 hours only and it’s assumed this “absorbs” your prep time ). You spend as much time on the so-called “repeat tutorial “ because students and classes have different needs and learn at different paces requiring unique adaption – but you’re not paid for that. Tutorials are usually 2 hours long. For casual academics with children- that means we pay for a whole day childcare for a 2 hour shift. You usually can’t prepare on the same day you deliver (without risking something going wrong) so preparation hours have to be on a different day (more $ on childcare) or in the evenings. As a parent – the multi uni option didn’t work for me because of childcare. Yes – having a PhD education is a privilege. But mine cost me $40k in loans plus no superannuation for the years it took to complete. It cost the Australian tax payer about $100k for my PhD. I’m skilled and educated and want to be fully employed. I want to contribute to our nations future. Casual academic labour as currently structured is not flexible it’s exploitative.

    3. Of course a “cursory Google search” eclipses the lived experience of those who know what they’ve are talking about.

      That $120 or so to deliver a lecture covers giving it, responding to student queries afterwards which might trickle in over the following week, rerecording it for online students if your initial recording didn’t work (quite common in my experiences).

      That’s all on top of preparing the lecture which involves researching and compiling it (including researching material that never ends up in the lecture), plus often preparing notes for other teaching staff which might include producing detailed lesson plans for tutorials following the lecture.

      So that’s several days of work that is all covered by that $120 or so which you found on your “cursory Google search”. That work is also all too often conducted at the staff member’s own expense and using their own equipment and internet etc.

      It’s like cooking that Big Mac in your own home with ingredients grown in your own backyard and then driving around in your own car offering it to people and answering their questions about it before they pay for it.

  17. What you very obviously do not understand Dean…is my point.

    I’m not disputing the preparation time. I’ve tutored and taught so I’m well aware of the plight of the unpaid teacher who always goes above and beyond.

    Maybe read my comment again to get the actual point I was making. If I were carrying a lemon, I’d be sure to make lemonade and share it around.

  18. Thank you so much for this article. I have been at my institution for 13 years, and a full-time casual for 5 years now, working back to back trimesters with job responsibilities ranging from PhD supervision to Unit development and coordination to marking for first year units. At a work dinner last week I was introduced as ‘the casual’. A colleague of mine who just started a 2 year post-doctoral fellowship with us just stuck his head in my office on his way to ‘coffee with the VC for new staff!!’ I am not categorised as ‘staff’! The situation is beyond ridiculous but I stay because I love what I do, particularly engagement with students, and it gives me the opportunity to publish (my self-funded research). However, this is beginning to impact on my confidence and self-esteem. How long can one be ‘second-best’?

  19. During job interviews, always opt for the more formal version of business casual . Even if you show up and your interviewer is clad in shorts or a short skirt, that doesn’t mean it …

  20. This article perfectly sums up my experience and sense of despair. The neoliberal approach also has more far-reaching effects – a huge waste of time and energy by those frantically forced to look for, in the case of ESL university positions, a new employer every five weeks. How are people supposed to plan – even commit to a rental
    Lease or even contemplate a mortgage? The entire concept of community – working, professional, living has been destroyed.
    Economically beneficial? Hardly – the mental health statistics are their surge over the last 20 years particularly anxiety, depression, addiction and suicide say it all.
    History will not be kind to neoliberalism and nor should we.
    Thank you for the best article I have read on this disgusting abuse of humanity’s greatest resource – itself.

  21. These casual ‘jobs’ are inherently unjust positions. Even when pay conforms to some Enterprise Agreement, administrators deliberately are vague about the real number of hours you are going to spend preparing for these lectures, tutorials and the time spent committing to student issues. Tenured academics seem to be oblivious. I had one who consistently told me to come in for talks on non-teaching days. I sat there thinking ‘do you know you took me away from my other part-time jobs? You are paid to sit here and chat with your $4 espresso coffee and lunch (which I don’t buy because I am on a budget). I am losing $25-30 per hour not working, plus I had to drive to get here and pay for the casual parking etc, having no rights to get a parking permit. And you actually just want to chat about life in general.’ (Sigh!) I loved teaching but not like this. When I told the tenured academic that it was taking me two full days to prepare to teach a new course, I was told ‘hey, look on the bright side, next year, you will spend almost no time’. ‘I won’t be here teaching your course so you can do more research.’ I wish more casuals stood up and left. You should know you are expedient, worth nothing except a cheap solution to cover teaching. The Most are disgruntled but meekly agree to whatever conditions the university specifies. Yes, you might have to leave academia but staying is exploitational and when you are older, you will regret it as your super will be hardly anything. From someone with experience.

  22. As I described to a student doing a research project on ‘casualisation and the gig economy’ last semester: I love the work that I do, I hate the conditions in which I am expected to work them. No-one deserves to be treated badly just because they are doing work that has social value, is important and that you enjoy. No nurse, no cleaner, no food production worker, no support worker, no teacher, no researcher. Thank you for writing this article. All workers forced into precarious work deserve to be treated with respect, paid proper compensation for the work we do, earn a liveable wage and attend workplaces that are safe. There is no case for 40% of the workforce in this country needing government assistance to get by. None.

  23. Thank you for giving a voice to the thousands of casual academics that our universities have relied on to do teaching cheaply until now. Perhaps the VCs could practise charity at home and adopt or sponsor a casual or two with their million dollar salaries.

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