Refusing to be cheap or flexible: labour strategy in academia

National Tertiary Education Union officials are negotiating right now with university managers over a national framework for dealing with fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. The framework is supposed be temporary, but we are concerned that one possible strategy will feed the growth of a permanent underclass of overworked teaching-focused academics. This should especially worry the new generation most likely to get trapped in that underclass.

The union is understandably focused on the casual teaching academics who may lose work in the coming months. Officials may decide to propose an expansion of categories of academic teaching contracts called ‘education-focused roles’ or ‘scholarly teaching fellowships’.

These teaching-intensive jobs are also very attractive to managers – but that should worry us. There are cross purposes here. Some union leaders welcome teaching-focused roles as more secure than casual teaching. But they appeal to management more as a cheap alternative to academic positions that balance teaching and research.

There is nothing to suggest that teaching-intensive jobs will reduce universities’ addiction to casual labour. Instead, there are signs that they are eating into the core of balanced research and teaching academic jobs that most casual academics hope one day to get. No-one is immune from the implications of this shift; it threatens labour conditions across the academy.


Creating another stratum

Universities have a very stratified academic workforce, from tutors and research assistants at the bottom to professors at the top. People have lived with the stratification in part because they anticipated ‘normal’ career progression, or at least the first step from an apprenticeship of casual teaching during the PhD to a continuing academic job, where the typical lecturer has a balanced workload of research, teaching and collegial service. The 40:40:20 standard ratio between those parts of the job is still the norm among most academics with continuing positions.

But that expected trajectory from PhD to a continuing lectureship has been disrupted over the last couple of decades, with people likely to spend longer – and potentially stuck for good – in a hinterland of casual and fixed-term roles after PhD training. During the PhD, some students already find themselves carrying significant teaching loads, contributing core lecturing duties within their departments.

The structural reliance on PhD student and graduate academics as cheap teaching labour has created the largest pool of academic casuals in the sector. (A smaller group of academic casuals are engaged in research assistant positions.) In a time when public funding has not kept up with costs and universities have turned to international student markets, management has offloaded the revenue risk from institutional finances onto casual workers.

Unions have focused on seeking alternatives to casual academic work. In the 2012 enterprise bargaining round, the NTEU recommended that Branches propose two categories of employment: ‘scholarly teaching fellowships’ and ‘early career development fellowships’. The former were teaching-intensive jobs conceived as ‘pathway’ contracts available only to existing casuals and fixed-term academics, which involved three years of 70–80 per cent teaching workload then transition to a continuing balanced research-and-teaching lectureship. 800 scholarly teaching fellowships have since been created across the sector. A smaller number of early career development fellowships were created – fixed-term research-and-teaching jobs for graduates.

In the same period, some branches have also allowed relaxation on limits to employment on ‘education-focused roles’. These roles constituted 48 per cent of new academic jobs created in the past decade, far outstripping balanced research and teaching positions (17 per cent). Education-focused roles were traditionally reserved for specialist professional training in areas like medicine and law, where practitioners might wish to spend time teaching without any expectation of research. They have now spread more widely, often presented as an opportunity for those driven by a passion for teaching, or for specialists in teaching and learning research. Some established academics have been pressed to ‘volunteer’ to turn research time into teaching as an alternative to redundancy.

Now these roles are routinely advertised as regular, entry-level jobs to cover any kind of teaching. Some in the union have cautiously accepted teaching-intensive jobs as giving more security, and even some nominal research time, to a group who were generally hired only for teaching on a semester-by-semester basis. Most importantly, it is doubtful that these jobs are replacing casual and sessional work – rather, they are entrenching a permanently lower tier of academic workers – cheap teachers rather than rounded scholars, liable to be stuck for good outside the career they anticipate.


Management’s dream

We need to understand why management has been so enthusiastic about expanding teaching-intensive roles. To a management increasingly drawn from business, and under tightening funding pressures, academic labour appears as a cost to be weighed against revenue, and most revenue (80 per cent at a G08 institution like the University of Sydney) is linked to teaching.

Managers look at hours of academic labour time per Equivalent Full Time Student Load, and paid time spent on research not funded by grants or other outside sources looks expensive. Teaching-focused workers with half the research time are an enormous efficiency gain. Coupled with the fact that they are normally held by junior academics with salaries around half those of full professors, they are an extremely cheap way to put teachers in front of large numbers of students.

For management, these jobs solve a cost problem, not a flexibility problem. In fact, while they may absorb some of the work that was done by tutors and sessional lecturers, they do not remove management’s need for a flexible periphery that can be hired and let go as necessary to cover temporary fluctuations in enrolment and research grant ‘buy-outs’ (the awful phrase used to designate funds used to hire casuals to replace teaching duties of a core member of staff).

There is no evidence to suggest they replace casual hours. We have not seen casual and sessional work disappear, or even decrease, in the institutions where staff have been employed on teaching-focused contracts.

Instead, managers have taken the opportunity to hire one teaching-intensive academic to cover teaching that once required two academics. This pattern is deflating academic job creation rates in the sector.

Creating a new secondary segment of the academic workforce allows managers to divide and conquer. Like casuals, teaching-intensive staff subsidise the superior salaries and conditions of research-and-teaching academics. These staff often come to realise this soon enough and rightly resent it like casuals do. Established academics, meanwhile, are left at the top of the career pole feeling awkward. Some have realised they are not immune, with management ‘encouraging’ those falling behind with publications to switch to education-focused roles. None of this is good for collegiality or solidarity in departments, let alone for students.


The next generation’s nightmare

This should be a nightmare to the young academics these jobs are being dangled in front of. For many, these roles will not be used to give them more security in the apprenticeship part of a career; they will replace the careers they hoped to have. Not all scholarly teaching fellows in the sector have been appointed as continuing or able to convert their positions into balanced roles because their university enterprise agreements were not clear, or their line managers have discouraged it. The larger number of permanently ‘education-focused’ academics have a more difficult path to better conditions via the labour market.

The workloads are truly extreme. The formulae faculties use to allocate work radically underestimate the time necessary to properly prepare and administer classes, and to give students useful feedback. This squeezes all academics, but especially those with more hours allocated to teaching. It is not uncommon for teaching-intensive academics to find themselves teaching six to eight separate units a year – not repeat classes, but units, each with its own academic literature they are supposed to somehow master enough to explain to students.

There is simply no way such work can be fit within anything like a standard working week. The teaching-intensive academic finds themselves without evenings, without weekends, and still feeling like they are cutting corners, teaching beyond their expertise, putting together last-minute slides week after week, staying awake through the mind-numbing task of marking hundreds of essays, throwing their lives into the job and then still dreading their students’ evaluations at the end of each semester. Then there are a few weeks to hurriedly get across the material for the next semester.

These jobs detach research from higher education. The logic of the balanced academic workload is that both teaching and research are necessary to make for good scholarship and good education. University teachers need time – a lot of time – just to read to keep across their field. There is simply no time to even begin to do this in the two hours allocated to prepare for each hour of lecture. Conversely, teaching helps to keep researchers in touch with the breadth of their fields, beyond their narrow specialisations.

Most Higher Degree Research students and graduates looking for continuing academic work want positions that provides stability and time to develop as intellectuals. The workloads involved in teaching-intensive positions rob the next generation of this trajectory, as well as their weekends and health.


Refusing to be cheap or flexible

The COVID-19 crisis is a reminder of how unfair it is for universities to rely on employees paid the lowest wages for the least secure work to deliver so much of the core teaching that brings in the revenue. Casual and fixed-term teaching staff are working harder than ever this semester to deliver in difficult online conditions, while wondering if they will have work in the future.

But the answer to this is not to offer management the opportunity to further expand cheap teaching through scholarly teaching fellow or other education-focused positions. This will only further destabilise the core academic workforce and reduce the numbers of jobs on offer. Teaching casuals are still mostly PhD students working part-time to supplement or replace scholarship income. Substituting this group with a tiny number of over-worked graduates won’t help them.

NTEU members among continuing staff should be refusing to take up the slack where casual tutors and lecturers are being let go. They should organise around workloads and insist on keeping their teaching loads to reasonable levels.

It is now critical for us to resist management requests to expand teaching-intensive jobs – now and in the coming enterprise bargaining rounds. The promised pathways out of existing scholarly teaching fellowships must be honoured, but the category is not worthy of expansion. For staff who wish to stay in education-focused roles, they should be strictly reserved for appropriate areas like clinical practice. In other areas, even teaching specialists need 40 per cent research time so they can stay abreast of their fields.

Pathways from PhD to secure and decent academic lectureships must be better regulated. Unit-of-study coordination should be reserved for PhD graduates employed for both research and teaching, in order to maintain the research-teaching link. Early-career fellowships with balanced research and teaching loads must replace scholarly teaching fellowships. The Early Career Development Fellowship model worked well at the University of Sydney and Melbourne.

Casuals have been asking for reform of PhD scholarships and tutorial work allocation, and this is long overdue. Australia’s PhD students should not have to rely on casual teaching to supplement inadequate scholarships. They are under immense pressure to finish in 3.5 years, before they exit into a difficult labour market.

To end time theft from PhD study, tutorial teaching should be conducted within postgraduate fellowships integrated properly into HDR training. Many enterprise agreements provide for fixed-term part-time postgraduate fellowships. This form of fixed-term employment could run for three years and remove the constant anxiety about access to work. The pay scales for casuals in enterprise agreements also need reform, as they chronically under-estimate or fail to capture hours spent on core duties. Two hours is barely enough time to keep up with the readings, much less follow lectures, so tutors must work for free or show up less familiar with the material than the students they are teaching.

Moving toward enterprise bargaining, we need a wider and deeper strategy to end casualisation and protect academic conditions for the next generation, as well as for the students who will fill their classrooms. The goals are to end both cheap and ‘flexible’ teaching, and to protect quality education.


Photo by Charlie Foster on Unsplash

Mike Beggs

Mike Beggs is senior lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney.

More by Mike Beggs ›

Beck Pearse

Beck Pearse is lecturer in sociology at the Australian National University, and before that she held a scholarly teaching fellowship at the University of Sydney 2017–20.

More by Beck Pearse ›

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  1. Good points, but it might be too late, too little. As a casualised academic worker (for 11 years), the primary goal for all this type of academic workers was always job security, plus the NTEU always used those Teaching Focused roles in EBAs to defend their lame and poor protection of casualised workers, which never happened, i.e. with 80 roles or so among a mass 4,700 precarious workers (actual numbers in one uni). Also, research has been taken for too long as a marketing and elitist exercise and teaching by the way was the core foundational mission of unis around the world. There is more urgency now than those roles and what management (full-time academics by the way) can “offer”. A complete renationalisation and radical reforms of unis is the only conceivable path, if we don’t want tertiary education to degrade beyond recognition.

  2. The points your article makes are an important addition/clarification because for a host of reasons the recent university and union debate has been mostly about casualisation or nothing. As you show STF’s are part of the same broad move to control labour and restructure the labour relations of the whole sector.
    One extra point though is that people make their decisions re their academic ‘career’ options on a primarily individual basis. This is not exactly a revelation but it is an awkward thing that needs to be somewhere in the analysis. They might feel they cannot do much about the drift to casualisation in the whole sector but this here is an actual job and half a loaf etc. We all know people who knew at the time they were fighting to get one, that STF’s are part of the problem at a system level. Equally, we know that people feel there is no other realistic option for them. As Thatcher was wont to (smugly) argue ‘there is no alternative’.

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