Casualisation of academic teaching

This year, seven Australian universities made it into the top 100 in the QS World University Rankings. Their vice-chancellors cheered. International students use this, as well as the Times Higher Education league table, to guide their choices, and their fees are crucial to universities’ revenue.

In fact, student fees provide most of the revenue of Australia’s universities – more than that received from either government grants or research and consultancy combined. Yet dig into the data from the QS rankings and a dismal picture emerges of the state of teaching in Australian universities.

Largely, the “excellent” rankings given to our top institutions were due to their research performance. All seven were judged “very high” for research output.

But on staff-student ratio – the indicator used by QS as a “proxy metric for teaching quality” – Australian universities scored dismally. Of those top seven Australian universities, the Australian National University had the highest score for teaching. It was ranked 417th in the world.

To understand these abysmal ratings, you need to step inside the classroom.

Take the University of Melbourne, the second-best university in Australia and 38th overall. Its ratio is 13.2 students to each staff member. Compare this with McGill in Canada, another large public university that received a similar overall QS ranking, coming in at 35th. McGill, however, has a ratio of 8.5 students to each staff member, significantly better than at any Australian university. Three of Australia’s “top” universities were ranked outside the world’s top 600 for their student-staff ratios. And it’s worse than this. Many of the Australian staff counted here are in research-heavy roles and have little contact with students.

These numbers are evidence of the slow, steady and arguably deliberate erosion of the teaching capacity of Australia’s universities. While student numbers have soared in the uncapped system, there has been no corresponding rise in permanent jobs to teach them. Instead, casual and fixed-term staff have filled the gap. Studies suggest that between 50 and 80 per cent of teaching in Australian universities is done by casual academics. I am one of them. I have a PhD and I’ve taught in the humanities for eight years.

Universities defend their reliance on casuals by arguing it allows “flexibility” – both for academics and for the institution to adjust to variations in enrolments between semesters. However, the argument doesn’t stand up. Universities repeat standard subjects, enrolments are relatively stable and many casuals have been working at the same institution for years. The real reason universities have come to rely on casuals is that they cost much less than full-time salaried academics.

A casual academic with a PhD hired for two semesters to co-ordinate a large undergraduate subject, give lectures every week, teach eight hours of tutorials and mark 120 students each semester would earn something in the region of $40,000 for those two semesters of work. The starting salary for a permanent level B academic – now the standard entry level for a continuing academic job – is usually at least $95,000 and often higher. Full-time academics also receive a higher rate of superannuation – 17 per cent at many institutions compared with the 9.5 per cent paid to casuals – as well as holiday pay, sick leave, paid parental leave, an office, a computer, professional development and the ability to apply for promotion.

The casualisation of university teaching is not a stop-gap solution. It is central to the business strategy of modern Australian universities.

It’s quite remarkable that Australian universities continue to educate and graduate students with a constantly rotating workforce, engaged 12 weeks at a time – sometimes only days before the start of semester – with little training or professional development, and provided with virtually no resources with which to do the job, not even a computer when they have been engaged to teach online.

So how can it be that Australian universities continue to function as educational institutions and sustain fairly respectable student feedback? The answer, widely known though rarely acknowledged by managers in higher education, is that most casual academics do much more work than they are paid for.

To write and deliver a one-hour lecture I am paid for three hours of work. In this time, I am expected to write the lecture and PowerPoint, deliver it to students and answer any follow-up questions in person or over email. It is simply not possible to do all of this in three hours, even if you are very experienced, even if you know the material very well, even if you work very efficiently.

Similarly inadequate is the time allotted for preparing and delivering tutorials, which is the bulk of the work done by casual academics. Again, I am paid for three hours to prepare and deliver a one-hour tutorial. This time is expected to cover revising the texts that will be discussed in the tutorial – students, meanwhile, are advised to set aside four hours to do the reading – preparing a lesson, teaching the tutorial and answering any follow-up questions from students, which will dribble in over email throughout the week. I may also be expected to attend the lecture for that week, which I may or may not be paid for. If I’m teaching a subject for the second or third time, these hours feel more generous. But as a casual, I have no guarantee my workload will be organised this way.

As a casual academic, I have been asked by students to write references, give career advice, offer extra help with assignments and provide pastoral support. A recent article for The Conversation suggests this is not unusual. Dorothy Wardale, Julia Richardson and Yuliani Suseno write that casual academics “regularly go beyond their contractual obligations by writing job references, providing career advice and making connections for future employment”.

These tasks are usually not part of the work that is officially assigned to casuals and so are not paid. But the students are unlikely to know which staff are casual and which are permanent. I do these things because I care about the students and I have a strong sense of professional responsibility. I also do them because I am not sure whom the students will ask, if not me.

I have been engaged as a casual to co-ordinate large undergraduate subjects for which there is no permanently employed academic. I have also designed subjects, assessment tasks and reading lists, and supervised postgraduate theses to completion. The level of responsibility in all of this goes far beyond the intended remit of casual work. The work can’t be left at the door, it can’t be swapped for another shift and it can’t be taken on at the last minute by another employee. Full-time salaries recognise this; casual wages do not. However, the shrinking number of permanent academic staff relative to student numbers means there is often no one else to do the job.

The casualisation of the academic workforce and the unpaid labour of casual academics have saved millions of dollars for Australian universities. But there are broader costs for these money-saving measures.

First, there is a cost to students. A casualised workforce is by definition a more disparate workforce, less physically present on campus and less attached to the institution. This means the people who are doing most of the teaching at Australian universities are not around the university. They are hard for students to find and unavailable for the sorts of informal and casual interactions between students and staff that were once part of university life.

The bigger cost of these changes, however, has been borne by early-career academics both in their unpaid work and in the erosion of the traditional academic career. It is a generational story. In the past, casual work was seen as a stepping stone to a permanent job, but this is no longer the case. There are now few pathways from casual work to permanent employment.

Most level A positions, the traditional entry level for an academic career, are now either casual or fixed-term. By contrast, the share of full-time salaried academic positions at level D or above – occupied by those who mostly got their jobs in an earlier era – has grown. In 1998, 20.6 per cent of academics were in one of these senior roles; in 2018, it had grown to 29.1 per cent.

Despite claims that some workers prefer the flexibility, most casual academics are unhappy. They want to be in stable employment. But the majority of university enterprise bargaining agreements exempt long-term casual academic staff from the right to convert to permanent positions. Moreover, the hours that casual academics spend in the classroom count for very little when applying for permanent positions, which tend to be made on the basis of research. As a result, casual teaching can become a trap rather than a career step, leaving little time for the research needed to be competitive for a more secure job. And yet, for early-career academics, casual teaching is often the only academic work available.

Last year, a truck driver employed as a casual in the mining industry took his employer to the Federal Court to argue he was entitled to annual leave, and the court found in his favour. The case rested on the nature of his working arrangements – they were regular and predictable, with the employee working a seven-day-on, seven-day-off continuous roster, which was set in advance for a year. The court found he was not a casual employee. Prima facie, this decision has implications for casual academic work.

The court ruled that the “essence of casualness” is that there is “no firm advance [mutual] commitment … to continuing and indefinite work according to an agreed pattern of work”. The common characteristics of casual work were described as irregular work patterns, uncertainty as to the period over which employment was offered, discontinuity, intermittency of work and unpredictability. Casual academic work has none of these features. If it did, the teaching programs at Australian universities would be rendered completely unsustainable.

I have been working at the same Australian university for more than three years and there are subjects that my manager expects me to teach each semester. My work has none of the features of “casual work” as described by the Federal Court. However, there is also no guarantee I will remain employed and the conditions of my work are far worse than those of permanent staff. I’ve published this piece anonymously because I don’t want to risk my job. The public face of the university does not acknowledge this story.

At graduation ceremonies at the end of the year, universities will display their students’ achievements to friends and family and give them an opportunity to thank the staff. Most of the people who have taught them won’t be there.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 27, 2019 as "Academic casualties".

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