Lessons in class and casualisation

Essay co-winner, Fair Australia Prize

It is not fashionable to write about ‘class’ in universities, unless accompanied by words like ‘transcend’, ‘post-industrial’ or ‘knowledge-economy’. And yet, academics should have a great deal to say about class, not least because they work in one of Australia’s most insecure work environments.

If anyone doubts that casualisation is a class issue, just consider that, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘the occupation with the highest proportion of paid leave entitlements was managers (93 per cent)’.

Meanwhile, the Australian Council of Trade Union’s (ACTU) 2011 study Lives on Hold documented more than 750,000 casual employees in education and training. In the university sector in particular, one in two jobs are casual or fixed-term. According to the National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) 2012 government submission on insecure work, less than 36 per cent of all university staff are employed in continuing roles.

Universities parade as communities of scholars, centres of innovation and bastions of critical thought – but anyone who has been to university knows, or at least suspects, that this is a nostalgic cliché more than it is fact, and that our ‘higher education’ is acquired in the dirty worlds of student politics and college parties as much as in the lecture theatres.

There is a powerful and growing critique of the corporatisation of universities. To date, this has mostly been framed as a blight on our education system, rather than as an industrial issue. Like any other factory, the ‘degree factory’ is home to what Marx called the ‘hidden abode of production’, or the hidden world of work. In this hidden abode, it’s not just ideas but university-life itself that is produced. This world is the subject of my essay.


Between 1996 and 2011, casual employment in Australian universities skyrocketed by 81 per cent, and fixed-term employment increased by 47 per cent. During that time, overall employment grew significantly, but permanent staff numbers only rose 37 per cent. Since 2011, casual employment went from 40 to 50 per cent.

The NTEU’s publication for casuals, Connect, explains that between 2005 and 2012, only one in four new jobs created in the higher education sector was continuing. That means that three out of four jobs created in this period was insecure (casual or contract).

The distribution of insecure work is somewhat unexpected, because it is academics, not administrative staff, suffering the bulk of the insecurity burden – indeed, 61 per cent of administration and other general staff positions are permanent, while 27 per cent are on limited contracts.

Imagine it this way: if a biologist, a maths tutor and a timetable administrator walked into the ANU bar, one and a half of them would be in insecure work. It is a safe bet that the maths tutor would make up the ‘one’, since almost 87 per cent of teaching-only positions are casual, and a further 7 per cent are limited-term; only a pitiful 6 per cent are employed in an ongoing capacity. The biologist and the admin would battle it out for second place. If the former was unlucky enough to be employed in a research-only capacity, she would have a less than 10 per cent chance of secure work (81 per cent of research-only positions are limited; 10 per cent are casualised). On the other hand, a biologist who has proved her multi-tasking abilities, and has secured a research and teaching position, will most likely have an ongoing position. Even then it’s not all hunky-dory: over a quarter of teaching-and-research positions are limited contracts. Drinks all round!

Insecure work demands more for less. Casual hours are tightly calculated for the pay-sheet, yet a looser attitude prevails when it comes to dishing out working hours. Unpaid labour is rife, hidden costs gnaw into pay packets, and administration and bureaucracy lurks around every corner, trapping casuals like trip-wires.

My own experience was precisely like this. I emerged from the degree factory with a Bachelor of Arts, qualified for: a) babysitting or b) tutoring in political economy (my major). I chose the latter, though I did not have high expectations. Most tutors I knew – and I knew quite a few – retired after twelve months. I proved to be no exception.

The lack of job security from semester to semester was irksome, and summer holidays, with no certainty of future work aren’t, well, holidays – they’re weeks of unemployment. Yet, it was my day-to-day struggles that really drove me up the wall: the random teaching and meeting hours without travel time factored in, the lack of office space which forced me to fight students for library desks, the piecemeal pay for essay marking, where every coffee or toilet break went unpaid. I was told we could use a professor’s office for student consultations, even though there were no consultation hours included in my contract. I resolved this dilemma by holding in-tutorial consultations, huddling at the front of the room or outside the door with the distressed student in question, while my other twenty students ploughed away at group work. Ah, group work: the ultimate tool of the teacher with ballooning class sizes. All casuals get creative. Peers of mine refused to hand out their email to students; others crammed their lesson-prep into the hour before class as a self-imposed buffer against unpaid work. Still, most of us, most of the time, put in extra hours.

Students assume their tutors have time to burn replying to emails and composing thoughtful feedback. Worse still is the growing user-pays mentality, which leads students to increasingly treat academics as service providers, demanding their money’s worth. The pressures mount, from above and below.

  • Research assistance (RA) work is no better. A friend of mine working as an RA provided me with their list of grievances:
  • Despite working 9–5 Monday to Friday (or, more accurately, 8.30–5.30) I am casually employed.
  • I have no permanent desk or workspace, and so have to work at home or share my boss’s office.
  • I am required to do work outside of the department in which I am employed.
  • I am not paid penalty rates, and sometimes my boss expects me to work Saturdays or stay back late Fridays.
  • I am constantly pressured to take shorter lunch breaks.
  • My boss shows me no respect, and does not give me academic credit for the articles I write.

Lest these testimonies be doubted as common, I consulted Richard Hil’s 2012 book Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University. ‘There are only so many hours in the day,’ writes Hil. ‘This trite observation has not deterred universities from seeking to cram more and more hours in the working week of their already stretched academics.’

Hil’s findings reveal the bitter truth: university staff today are expected to occupy themselves with ‘busyness’, keeping the production line ticking along, assisting in university brand promotion, and fulfilling random targets. Academics have been forced down from the metaphorical ivory tower into a workplace that resembles Google-cross-public-service-cross-retail-

One of Hil’s case studies, a social-sciences academic from a regional Victorian university, recalls:

What’s it like being a casual? I can’t put it into words. ‘Outrageous’ comes to mind. Firstly I made more money years ago when I was doing menial jobs than I do now as a casual at a regional university. Secondly, the university is actively anti-intellectual. One of the main things I will remember about my experience is that I had to read books behind closed doors because reading books was seen by administrators and management alike as being inefficient.

Their story reveals the perverse side effects of intensifying work pressures and casual life in university institutions. God forbid we actually engage with the ideas of our students! Instead, research assistants and academics alike learn to pump out journal articles full of suitably fashionable buzzwords with too many syllables, perhaps as a consequence of the ‘flexibilisation’ of the neoliberal academic market. Maybe it was this reinforcement of the idea of academia as a fast-moving, high-fashion industry that saw the University of Sydney announce, in 2013, academic job cuts that would be decided upon by the number of publications academic staff had published the three years previous. It was a metric that had never before been part of the job description of the institution’s academics.

The truth is that insecure work is not compatible with critical intellectual thought. As the NTEU observes:

In the case of academic employment, precarious employment is not consistent with one of the defining characteristics of university education – intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom only exists when it is supported by both the culture of the institution and enforceable rights which give employees redress against breaches of intellectual freedom.

Universities are supposed to be centres of social and scientific life. They are held up as institutions that expand our horizons of knowledge, and inoculate intellectual progress from the bottom dollar that rules the rest of our daily existence. Whether this was ever true is a question beyond the scope of this essay; that it is not true today is my point.

Having established the callousness of casualisation, I must now add a note of caution. Investigating the extent of insecure work and protesting against it is the duty of trade unions, the socialist-left, progressive economists and, indeed, literary journals. But we must not wildly extrapolate from some growth in insecure work to hyperboles of a new world dominated by precarity and flexibility in which workers’ rights and militancy are a distant dream.


Despite the growth in insecure forms of work, the ACTU study Lives on Hold shows that 62 per cent of Australian employees are permanently employed. That is a clear majority. So we must be careful in how we express our concerns about creeping insecurity, because, unawares, our screams may join a chorus of voices from both Left and Right, creating an ideological offensive against workers’ confidence.

Employers have something to gain from making casualisation and endless turnover seem like an inevitable fact, something for workers to manage rather than struggle against. Kevin Doogan, author of New Capitalism? The Transformation of Work, calls this the ‘confluence of narratives’ around flexibility. Exaggerating the deficits in workplace rights can demoralise, as well as anger. If anyone can slip into a casual job at any time, and if casuals are ‘precariats’ at the bottom-rung of the employment pyramid, with little power to resist or defend themselves, then the prospects for class struggles are bleak.

David Harvey provides a classic case of such widespread exaggeration in A Brief History of Neoliberalism:

The individualised and relatively powerless worker … confronts a labour market in which only short-term contracts are offered on a customised basis. Security of tenure becomes a thing of the past.

Only short term contracts! Thing of the past! This is surely a gross exaggeration for dramatic effect.

Exaggerating the growth of insecurity may produce self-fulfilling prophecies – an even more likely outcome if the precarity hyperbole comes from unions. How does this self-fulfilling prophecy work? The argument goes like this: insecure jobs are disposable; disposable workers are constantly afraid of being disposed; therefore casualised workers are less likely to fight, and militancy is dead.

Guy Standing’s well-known book The Precariat is a case in point. He explicitly links flexibility to the decline in labour militancy: collective organisation is easier among workers who have stable jobs and, therefore, are more confident to pursue their demands. The precariat, by contrast, ‘can be controlled through fear more easily’.

Yet, this bleak portrait lacks accuracy. As I have already mentioned, the substantial majority of the Australian workforce are, in fact, permanently employed. Furthermore, the road to a precarious workforce is not one way. In the United States, for example, a 2008 study by Den Henwood observed that involuntary part-time work generally increased in recession conditions, but tended to drop off again in recovery, with little long-term growth. Despite huge spikes in involuntary part-time work with each recession since the mid 1970s, the levels for 2000 were comparable to those of earlier decades, due to the fact that the figures declined with each recovery.

Looking more closely at the Australian case reveals that a growth in part-time or casual work does not necessarily mean insecure work, and certainly does not mean workers become completely disposable. The high demand for ‘permanent casuals’, combined with the possibilities for unionisation, means that this workforce is potentially quite powerful. In Australia, the growth of casual labour has virtually ceased since 2004, remaining at a constant of approximately one fourth of the workforce. Moreover, much of the growth in casual work has occurred at the outer ends of the age spectrum, with high school and university students increasingly participating in the workforce while studying. In 2009, around 40 per cent of casuals were aged between fifteen and twenty-four. While the exploitation of the young is still exploitation, this figure must be read in light of other factors. For example, 45 per cent of casuals are employed in their job for less than one year, and in this younger age bracket, people tend to move voluntarily and frequently between jobs and cities.

One point that deserves further attention: according to the ACTU, the majority of casuals are classified as permanent-casuals with ‘long-term, ongoing and regular employment’. Indeed, 15 per cent of casuals have been in their current job for five years or more. It’s a phenomenon that’s widespread in the university sector. The NTEU notes that:

Only a small minority of casual employment in universities is genuinely ‘casual’ in nature at all. Casual employment is used primarily to deny people employment rights, to create a compliant workforce, and to cut costs. It is not a function of the nature of the employment itself.

This is a remarkable observation. If casual employment is not a function of the nature of the employment itself, but an ideological tool, that suggests that casual workers are not as disposable as they may seem. It certainly cuts against a dogmatic economic argument that security and workers’ militancy rise and fall together.

None of this is to suggest that insecure work is not a reality. It is not, however, a new reality. Given the anarchy of capitalist production under competition, there has always been a tension between the need for flexibility and stability, but flexible employment can cause problems for employers as well as employees.

Subcontracting, for instance, can have negative effects on the training and retention of skilled labour. Advanced capitalist economies rely on a much more highly skilled labour force than in the past, with one in three jobs in Australia demanding the minimum qualification of a bachelor degree by 2025. It takes time and money to train workers, and employers prefer to maintain the ‘loyalty’ of their workforce to avoid these costs.

Further, while the growth of an insecure and fragmented workforce is often closely associated with Australia’s growth of the service industry and loss of jobs in manufacturing, there is an important distinction to be made between jobs that are lost due to a decline in output and job losses due to increased productivity. The latter means that while there may be fewer workers employed in the industry, each one in fact has more power. Think of a single machine operator in one of Australia’s mineral rich mines.

Most importantly, whether casual or ‘permanent casual’, whether contract or part-time, the capacity to resist – and the capacity to exercise industrial power – remains.

In 2013, I stood on the picket lines at the University of Sydney with members of the NTEU and CPSU. These unions’ rights were under savage attack: the university wanted to cut into everything from sick leave, to pay, to job security, to intellectual freedom. The union beat back these attacks, with a strong campaign including seven days of strike action. The NTEU grew by several hundred members as a result. Academics won too, with eighty ‘Scholarly Teaching Fellow’ positions created to replace work then being done by casuals.

Casual staff also self-organised and played a strong part in the campaign, raising the awareness of insecure work in the university. Yoga sessions on the picket lines drew attention to how casuals everywhere are constantly expected to bend-over-backward. Collective essay marking on the grass outside the vice-chancellor’s office highlighted the lack of office space for casual tutors.

Of course, these exploitative practices have not been eradicated, but the victory of the strike action did not only result in the creation of new permanent places, it also widened the horizons of the local NTEU branch, which is now introducing casual representation onto its branch committee. The ‘casuals network’ continues to fight for the rights of casual university employees.

This is but one small example of the power of unity in action. Casual or permanent, academic or general: in union there is strength. Universities are not the only, or even the most, insecure of workplaces. Still, there are general lessons to be learned from them, ones that readers are unlikely to come across in any lecture or journal: there is no ‘privileged’ permanent workforce whose interests are set against a growing ‘precariat’. Rather, the working class as a whole is compelled to defend the conditions of one and all. The silver lining of class exploitation has always been solidarity in struggle, collective action for a collective vision of better working conditions and a better life. We are all precarious under capitalism, but we are also strong.


This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Erima Dall

Erima Dall graduated in political economy with a Sydney University medal and a very casual tutoring job, so she joined the NTEU. A recent recipient of a scholarship from the Journal of Australian Political Economy, Erima is a socialist, a refugee activist and a member of Solidarity.

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