Archive for December, 2011

Precarious employment in academia

December 15, 2011

sandstone university building with jacaranda

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/]

    Do Bill and Greg have kids?

    December 14, 2011

    vintage political poster: Women's job is the home! Give her power over her job! Give her the vote!
    [Image source: Sociological Images.]

    Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald featured a story about the Federal cabinet reshuffle. While I certainly applaud the promotion of these talented female politicians, it is disappointing to see the newspapers focus on their roles as mothers.

    The article in question is headlined, Gillard: ‘Nicola, Tanya and Julie understand the challenges Australian women face as they seek to build a career’

    I quote:

    Nicola Roxon, a mother of one, has become the nation’s first female Attorney-General. She has been replaced as Health Minster by Tanya Plibersek, a mother of three. The newest minister, Julie Collins, has three children. All the women are in their 40s.

    It is only later in the article that the women’s achievements in previous portfolios are mentioned.

    I like these letters from today’s paper in response to the article above.

    Mira Crouch of Glebe writes:

    It may be pleasing that our Labor Prime Minister will be so well advised on the bourgeois point of view of the woman building a career while having a family (“Gillard: Nicola, Tanya and Julie understand the challenges Australian woman face as they seek to build a career”, December 13).

    However, Julia Gillard also needs to understand, and consider, that most Australian women (and men) work in jobs which do not provide opportunities for upward career paths. Nonetheless they, too, seek to build something – a decent life for themselves and their families (if any) in a community which respects and supports the run-of-the-mill person as much as an aspirational one. Lead the way, Prime Minister!

    Another letter points out that these women can only manage to juggle the career-climb and motherhood because they earn a salary big enough to pay for childcare.

    But my favourite letter is the following one, because it points out the double standards involved when we talk about female and male politicians…

    Suzanne Marks of Dulwich Hill writes:

    Thank you to the Herald for highlighting that the three women appointed to the cabinet are all mums and how many children they have. I’d also love to know if Bill Shorten and Greg Combet are dads and how many children they have. (I’m not interested in Mark Arbib). Or do we only learn this about men when they muck up their portfolios and leave politics to spend more time with their families?

    Can you imagine a headline that read “Bill and Greg understand the challenges men face when building a career”? Firstly, if it was in the Australian press, they’d be referred to by their surnames Shorten and Combet, because they’re blokes. Secondly, no, we can’t imagine such a headline, because the struggle to combine paid work with being a parent is still thought of as something that only women face.

    43rd Down Under Feminists Carnival

    December 9, 2011

    Just a quick post to say that the 43rd Down Under Feminists Carnival is now up, hosted by A Bee of a Certain Age.

    Check it out for all the best feminist blogging in Australia and NZ from November. The forty-fourth edition of the carnival will be hosted by Mary at Hoyden about Town in early January. Submissions to mary-carnival [at] puzzling [dot] org. So get writing and submit your favourite posts throughout December.