Precarious employment in academia

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A large proportion of staff employed at Australia’s universities experience high levels of job insecurity and poor working conditions. Anyone who has ever been employed as a sessional/casual/contracted teacher or researcher will be familiar with some or all of the following stories: Not being paid for marking or attending lectures, nor compensated for hours spent replying to student emails. Having wages cut if a class is missed due to illness. Filling out fiddly casual timesheets in order to get paid. Little or no access to professional development. Short contracts with no long-term stability. Wages that fluctuate week to week. No access to a desk or computer facilities. Exclusion from staff meetings and decision-making processes. And the list goes on…

These kinds of stories differ depending on departmental and institutional contexts, but the overarching picture emerging about the casual workforce is one of dissatisfaction and uncertainty. And the proportion of casual academic staff is increasing. Sessional and casual employees make up the bulk of the academic workforce. A new study by Robyn May (2011) uses superannuation records from Unisuper to estimate that casual staff comprise 60 per cent of the academic workforce. The casual labour market is also highly gendered, with 57% of casual staff being women (May 2011: 6).

A recent study (Bexley et al. 2011) investigating the attitudes of academic employees points to some of the problems facing the Australian university workforce. The study received responses from over 5,500 university employees, including session and casual staff, across 20 Australian universities. While there isn’t the space here to outline all their key findings, here are a few of them:

  • Less than one third of academics believe their workload is manageable.
  • “60 per cent of early career staff are dissatisfied with their job security compared with less than one quarter of late career staff” (Bexley et al. 2011: xi).
  • “Close to 40 per cent of academics under 30 years of age plan to leave Australian higher education in the next five to ten years, with 13 to 18 per cent intending to leave in the immediate future.” (Bexley et al. 2011: xii).
  • Short-term and casual academics are typically assumed to be postgraduate students, however this is not the case: many “are already PhD qualified, and many work in roles that are ongoing in all but name. Nor are they predominantly young people, who may expect a period of insecure employment before moving into more permanent positions. Over half are aged over 40, and are therefore likely to have families and other adult responsibilities” (Bexley et al. 2011: 43).

    As May points out, the increasingly casualised workforce in Australian universities must be seen in the “context of wider economic, regulatory and labour market changes that have taken place over the last three decades” (May 2011: 2). While academia is certainly not the only industry to be affected by casualisation, the reported levels of dissatisfaction about working conditions is something that needs to be addressed. There are no easy answers to these difficult dilemmas. Improved funding for the higher education sector would help, but we also need to see institutional and structural changes to ensure fair working conditions for all university employees.

    ___________
    References
    Bexley, E. James, R. and Arkoudis, S. (2011) “The Australian academic profession in transition: Addressing the challenge of reconceptualising academic work and regenerating the academic workforce”, CSHE, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, report prepared for DEEWR.

    May, R. (2011) “Casualisation here to stay? The modern university and its divided workforce”, in Markey, R (Ed.), Dialogue Downunder, Refereed Proceedings of the 25th Conference of AIRAANZ. Auckland (available from: http://www.nteu.org.au).

    Further reading: http://www.unicasual.org.au/publications/external

    [Casual, sessional and contract staff reading this may be interested in sharing their work stories with the inquiry into insecure work in Australia, currently calling for submissions: http://securejobs.org.au/independent-inquiry-into-insecure-work-in-australia/]

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    3 Responses to “Precarious employment in academia”

    1. ana australiana (@ana_au_) Says:

      Thanks for this post!
      Life as a surplus/feral graduate has been pretty interesting for me. Apart from the chronic wage insecurity and extreme vulnerability to unfairness and bullying, there’s also that feeling of having to consider what all that academic training actually *meant*. And hoping to make it mean something more than the current funding tumult and labour rights fail…

      • doctorpen Says:

        thanks! I wrote this for something else but decided it was worthwhile posting here. :)

        Yeah, I’ve been through periods of “why did I bother with a phd?” too. But I didn’t start my thesis with the goal of an academic career anyway, so that doesn’t always bother me too much. But yes, what pisses me off the most is the anxiety and stress that comes with the insecure working conditions. Even being offered part-time for six months or a year would make a nice change from the string of short-term casual contracts. Being able to accrue holiday leave…what a luxury that would be! :)

    2. ana australiana (@ana_au_) Says:

      I had my first paid sick day since starting postgrad study in 2004 this year and it felt like some sort of massive scam ;)

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