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Sessional Academic Challenges—Part 3

Student holidays and semester breaks are a lean time for those reliant on teaching income, as contracts do not extend into these periods. The lack of reliability of the work is obviously financially disadvantageous: in summer, one cannot live on sunshine alone, it’s difficult to acquire a mortgage based on tenuous fluctuating pay, and it’s challenging to hold down other jobs or organise regular child care that can cope with the ever-changing teaching requirements. In general, one gets the feeling that the university sheds its casual academics seasonally with as much thought as a deciduous tree drops its leaves.

‘While some tutors or demonstrators who do not intend to work in universities beyond their research training might be happy with casual work, it is a major impediment and turn off for those wishing to make a career in the sector,’ says Paul Kniest (NTEU).

For academics with disabilities, this work can be particularly challenging. One experienced internationally recognised casual academic interviewed for this article has some physical disabilities that affect her ability to attend networking meetings. Of casual academic work, she says ‘It’s a really bad choice for anyone who is disabled, not male, and not culturally mainstream; doors do not open and enough work to make a living on or opportunities for more permanent work seldom happen. There is little support for people with disabilities’.

She goes on: ‘Some casualisation gives flexibility and offers some very useful experience. Too much creates a class system within the university sector. It’s the perfect path for universities who want to lose those who are not favoured individuals’.

While the NTEU represents a relatively low proportion of all casual employees in higher education, the union actively campaigns to improve conditions. They argue against further casualisation of the university workforce stating ‘casualisation which in addition to being inferior for current casuals also reduces the attractiveness of academia as a career, thereby threatening the quality of research, education and the reputation of Australia’s world class higher education sector’. Further information about the NTEU’s campaigns are available online.

The happiest casual academic interviewed for this piece was recruited from industry by his PhD supervisor, maintaining his full-time job while working casually as an academic. The reasons for his contentment became obvious when we discussed his workplace conditions; he did not undertake extra unpaid hours, had a fixed schedule, was paid carer’s leave when required, and even found the situation financially rewarding.

The Effect on Students

But what’s the effect on students who are increasingly being taught by casual often junior academics, or PhD students?

Casual academics are often not as knowledgeable as full-time staff, particularly those early in their academic career. They may also lack communication and teaching skills, which take time to develop. I still vividly remember my first day demonstrating, staring down the microscope as I fumbled to answer the student’s question. Conversely, newer staff are undoubtedly still enthusiastic about their subjects. ‘We pay way more attention. We prepare for things because for us, it is much more significant. We are still excited about lecturing! But we aren’t as experienced and we will make mistakes’ suggests Dr Davis.

Possibly the greatest advantage to students is when an industry expert is brought in to teach, providing ‘a context that full-time teachers might not be able to provide’ says one casual academic, who was employed to do just this. And perhaps this is the ideal use of casual teachers at the university, rather than employing ever-more enthusiastic, but rather inexperienced, casual academics with high expectations, poor employment conditions and ultimately a high turnover.

Where to from Here?

Although it is unlikely that the universities will ever stop using a casual workforce to supplement teaching, it would be useful for career academics to have career coaching and mentorship early in their career. Universities should be frank about the conditions of long-term employment in this rather fickle industry. Those who choose to remain as long-term casual academics should be recognised as valuable contributors to the university environment, with improved workplace conditions, such as offers of permanent part-time work, paid leave, fixed days of work, paid preparation and administration, and longer contracts including work over semester breaks. Being paid a reasonable hourly rate for hours worked would help as well. Students also need to demand the better of quality teaching that long-term or more experienced casual academics provide.

Unless such demands are made by those working in academia, both casually and full time, and by students, universities are likely to increase their casual workforce as it is financially advantageous to be able to take on and shed academics as budgets demand. And with a new generation of cash-poor PhD students and underemployed post-docs every year beating down their doors to work under such poor conditions, it is no wonder they take advantage of their position. But with great power comes great responsibility not to exploit.

‘Let’s be honest, most of us want so badly to work in that world when that’s what we have been working towards, so I don’t think anyone could have warned me away’ says Dr Davis.

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