Is it possible to escape the casual teaching trap?


Having recently submitted my PhD with timely support and advice from various posts, I thought that the findings from my PhD might be of use to those of you in the higher education community.

My PhD was an investigation of the casualisation of academic work in Australian universities. My research involved a large survey of casual academic staff across 19 universities and interviews with casual academics. I also worked as a casual tutor and researcher during my studies. The research was part of a wider ARC Linkage project examining gender equity in Australian universities, based at Griffith University. My own interest in this particular topic stemmed from a background in trade unions and from working on other research projects examining insecure work. I was also very conscious that this was a topic that had not received the attention it deserved and the investigation was timely if somewhat depressing!

My purpose in writing this post was really to synthesise some general advice, based on my findings, for post-graduate students who juggle casual teaching along with their studies. In particular my comments are aimed at those who take on casual teaching work in the hope that it will assist their aspirations for an academic career. I acknowledge that not all of those who teach on a casual basis in our universities do so because they want this career. The casual teaching workforce is highly diverse, both in terms of motivations and life stage, which can mean that the needs of those who are seeking an academic career are ignored.

The highly insecure nature of much of the work (both teaching and research) in universities is only beginning to be raised in wider public discussion. My research, using our survey data and analysis of the university staff superannuation fund, shows that casual academic staff are the majority, on a headcount basis, of academic staff across Australia’s universities.

This casual workforce undertakes a large proportion of the undergraduate teaching in the sector. Casual academics are younger, and more likely to be female than their continuing academic counterparts, and the survey data showed that the majority already have, or are working toward, a PhD qualification. Most would like a more secure academic position and only one in ten say that casual work is their preferred option.

By casual academic staff I mean those who tutor, lecture and demonstrate on an hourly rate basis, and I use the word casual, rather than ‘sessional’, deliberately, because I think it is important not to lose sight of this most essential nature of the employment arrangement, its hourly rate basis. Whilst the capacity to employ academic teaching staff on an hourly rate is not new, what is new is the size and scale of the casual workforce, the growing separation of this workforce from the continuing academic workforce, and the length of time many aspiring academics spend in casual employment before they get their first continuing appointment, if indeed they ever do.

All of this is occurring in a context where students are paying more for their university education than ever before, the student population is highly diverse, and the implications of a highly casualised workforce are enormous. The evidence suggests that universities will continue to expect much from their casual teaching staff, promising little security and support in return, and that this workforce will keep growing. As a postgraduate student how do you best navigate the ‘flattering’ offers of casual teaching in order to maximise the experience for your CV without taking your eye off what is really valued in the sector, your research output?

Understand how the hourly rate works: I know of new tutors who spend up to 8 hours preparing for a one hour tutorial. They would earn a better hourly rate at McDonalds! The tutorial rate, for example, includes 2 hours of payment for preparation, administration and student consultation. Every extra hour you spend with that needy student or on that time wasting administration process decreases your hourly rate and eats into your study/writing time. Set clear boundaries and let the academic you work with know if you feel you are being forced to work beyond that you are paid for. Some universities are introducing extra payments such as paying for a weekly student consultation hour separately.

Remember that teaching one semester is no guarantee of work the next, so don’t assume you will get economies of scale when you develop that fabulous course in your spare time. And that the intellectual property belongs to the university who employed you to write it (even if it was a ‘love job’).

Take advantage of any professional development on offer: some universities are better than others in offering basic training for tutors. Many academic colleagues are not aware of what is on offer so you may need to make inquiries of other staff in your faculty or approach the teaching and learning area of your university.

Beware the casual teaching trap: Topping up your scholarship with some casual teaching can be useful financially and for your CV however years spent in casual teaching employment beyond PhD completion can detract from the search for a more secure appointment rather than enhance the chances of scoring that better job. This is largely because of the time-consuming nature of the work and its detrimental impact on research productivity.

Have a plan for how long you will work as a casual after your PhD completion. My research suggests that if you have not found a more secure position within three years of PhD completion it is increasingly unlikely that you ever will.

Understand the marking formula: If your university pays you to mark three exam scripts in an hour then mark at least three scripts an hour if not more.

Tread warily with course coordination:
While this is not a task that is supposed to be undertaken by casual staff, the practice is widespread across the sector. Course coordination is stressful and comes with a high workload which is very likely to derail study progress. Proceed very carefully.

A love of teaching is not enough! Many of the casual academics I interviewed told me how much they enjoyed teaching and interacting with students and how they got great student evaluations. The brutal truth in the sector is, however, no matter how good a teacher you are it is unlikely to be the factor that secures you an academic position. A little teaching experience counts on the CV but ultimately we are judged on our research outputs, and the competition is fierce. Not only are fewer academic positions coming up but there are large numbers of highly qualified international applicants bidding for those positions.

The shape of things to come: The academic labour market has changed rapidly over the past decade and those who suggest there are likely to be opportunities open up when the baby boomer generation retire have got it wrong.

Many of the baby boomers who do retire are hired back as casuals – universities recognise this as a potent source of trained labour.

Academic work is rapidly changing; technology, outsourcing and funding constraints are likely to contribute to further shrinking of the continuing teaching and research academic labour force and increase the bifurcation between ‘secure’ and insecure academic work. Universities are getting better at ‘managing’ casual academics and will increasingly resort to student evaluations to determine hiring and to mediate quality concerns, particularly where there is a good supply of casual labour (that is a large post-graduate cohort).

Finally if you think the fact that our universities are being propped up by an insecure and often exploited workforce and this bothers you, do something about it. Join the union. Talk with fellow casual staff about the situation. Find out about your university’s collective agreement and whether your university has adopted any new provisions or policies to create more secure academic positions, or if they have resisted these claims in bargaining ask why.

This discussion all points to a wider question about what purpose the PhD and what role universities should play in providing realistic career advice about post PhD options beyond the academic career path. A whole new post!

Love to hear your thoughts.

Author Bio: Robyn is a Research Fellow at University of Melbourne and her recently submitted PhD examines the causes and implications of insecure academic employment in Australia’s public universities. The research is part of a wider ARC project at Griffith University looking at gender and employment equity in the university sector. Before undertaking her PhD Robyn worked for the National Tertiary Education Union, and has also worked as a researcher and casual academic at RMIT University, and in research positions in New Zealand and the UK.