When a casual affair turns sour

A greater reliance on sessional staff is causing concerns about exploitation and teaching quality, writes Gary Newman.

A greater reliance on sessional staff is causing concerns about exploitation and teaching quality, writes Gary Newman.

TO AN outsider, this could seem like a golden age for higher education. Over the past decade Australian universities have drastically increased research activity while teaching record numbers of students all with less government funding than 20 years ago.

Policymakers seem to have created the equivalent of a magic pudding: the more money you scoop away, the more universities produce. But inside the institutions there is tension as they give priority to research and increasingly leave the teaching to casual staff.

As universities face tough decisions to improve their international rankings, it's the casual teaching staff, and their first or second year students, who are paying the price, say concerned academics.

Professor Frank Larkins, a former deputy vice-chancellor at Melbourne University, says universities rely on international students, and their ability to attract such students depends on the university's international ranking.

"Worldwide it is a reality that standing tends to be measured by research performance rather than teaching quality," he says.

Accordingly, universities are spending more on research to maintain, or enhance, their international prestige. Professor Larkins found that universities spent $2.7 billion on research in 2008, which was mostly drawn from student fees and federal government HECS funding.

The priority given to research over teaching is also reflected in staffing trends, he says. Between 2000 and 2010 the number of specialist research staff employed at universities increased by 78 per cent, according to Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) statistics. During the same period, full-time equivalent teaching staff increased by 26 per cent, despite student numbers rising by 54 per cent.

"The effect has been that the student-to-staff ratios for coursework students have blown out quite significantly," says Professor Larkins.

Casual teachers are hired, particularly for undergraduate classes, to deal with growing student numbers. Many have not taught at universities and are astonished to find they receive little support, may be expected to develop course material and can face tutorials of up to 30 students.

Their predicament has not gone unnoticed. Many academics with tenured positions recognise that sessional staff are being exploited and have become an underclass within universities. First- and second-year students also notice when their teacher is unavailable outside limited hours and does not seem to understand university procedures.

Linda Rohrs is a committed teacher whose experience is typical of the army of casuals working in universities. As a casual accountancy teacher at Swinburne University, she earns $112 for her first tutorial and $75 for every repeat tutorial. "It does sound very good, doesn't it? But that includes the two hours preparation for the first tutorial and an hour for each additional tutorial," says Ms Rohrs.

This equates to $37 an hour, but what does she earn once she factors in unpaid overtime?

"I don't want to know," she laughs grimly.

Swinburne staff are recognised within university circles for the effort they put into forging relationships with students. The university has been rated the highest for teaching quality by the Good Universities Guide for the past six years. But some staff believe this stellar record has been maintained by placing more pressure on workers.

Working conditions have seriously deteriorated over the past seven years, says Ms Rohrs. She likens it to "salami tactics" slice by slice more is added to the responsibilities of teaching staff, many of whom are casual. In the past she received administrative and teaching support, but she now prepares all class materials. This, she says, is additional to the many hours of unpaid student consultation.

"I teach a first year accounting unit the vast majority [of students] are straight out of school. It's pretty hard for them to get their heads around the fact that teachers aren't going to do everything for them. You need to have this one-on-one time in order to ease the transition," says Ms Rohrs.

Swinburne's staff is mostly permanent, with DEEWR statistics showing 16.4 per cent are casual. This is in line with the national average of 16.2 per cent. But universities report casual staffing as "full-time equivalent" (FTE), making it virtually impossible to determine the number of individuals employed.

Based on FTE data, the department reported that in 2010 there were 10,691 casual academic staff in Australia. But based on superannuation data, Griffith University PhD student Robyn May estimated the number of individual casual academic staff was closer to 67,000.

Last year, Ms May coordinated the largest survey of Australian casual university staff. Most respondents said they participated in university meetings on an unpaid basis. This is evidence of how universities have become dependent on the unpaid work of casual academic staff, says Ms May.

"There has always been large amounts of unpaid work in universities," says the University of Melbourne's Dr Emmaline Bexley, who co-authored a recent study of the academic workforce.

"Traditionally people haven't cared because academia was a vocation - you'd want to stay up at night studying your books and writing your articles. But it's when the actual work itself is more like a job than a vocation, then people get frustrated, particularly if they're casual," she says.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) estimates more than half the teaching conducted in Australian universities is done by casuals.

"It's much cheaper for universities to employ casual staff because they only have to pay for the particular hour of teaching and don't have to pay for a third or a half of the year when they're stood down during the non-teaching periods," says Ken McAlpine, a senior NTEU industrial officer.

Many casual teachers are industry experts brought in to enrich teaching and learning programs, a fact acknowledged by Mr McAlpine.

"We don't have a problem per se with some casual employment. But our estimate is that there are 8000 to 10,000 people with PhDs who are still doing casual teaching at universities and that's just a shockingly wasted resource," says Mr McAlpine.

Less than a third of academic staff believe their workload is manageable, while 60 per cent of early career staff said they were dissatisfied with job security, according to Dr Bexley's research.

"I think a lot of people are frightened to talk openly and be named," says Ms Rohrs, who at 52 feels she has less to lose than younger teachers seeking to forge a career. "I like to work, I don't have to work. So I'm in a fortunate position where I can actually say things without worrying about losing any work or any hours."

Not so for a young tutor from Melbourne University, who spoke to The Age on condition of anonymity.

"There are hours and hours of unpaid work every week. They just don't pay you enough for what you do and it's the students who suffer," says the tutor. The tutor, who teaches writing in the arts faculty, says classes have been cut from two hours to 1? in 2012, meaning the same amount of teaching must occur in less time.

It also means less money because tutors are paid per hour of class contact. This loss of income is exacerbated by the need for more unpaid out-of-class consultation, due to the shortened tutorials.

"There is a level of student anxiety I've never seen before," says the tutor. "They want a lot of time outside class which I'm not paid for.

"I'm really torn I can see stuff that needs fixing and advice that needs giving. My inclination is that I do that in my own time because I feel it's really unfair on the students if I don't, but this makes me really resentful. I have spoken to the [subject co-ordinator] about this but I know [they're] outsourced as well so [they] don't have any great leverage with the university."

A spokesman for Melbourne University was not available to comment.

Professor Larkins says the diminishing numbers of permanent teaching staff and an over-reliance on casuals is concerning. "Yes, the casuals can come in and help out, but they're not the foundation on which you build your quality discipline courses," he says. "There just isn't the investment in coursework education, as manifested in adequate levels of continuing staff."

Not everyone agrees that giving priority to research is a bad idea. "I think that's a very cynical view," says Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson. "We shouldn't be ashamed of the resources we put in to research except that they're probably too low. The only criticism that would be deserved is that if it was coming at the expense of high quality teaching and learning and I don't think there's any evidence to suggest that."

Little research has been done to measure the effects of casualisation on teaching and learning, says Ken McAlpine.

"In a $14 billion industry, you'd think the universities as public institutions would be researching these things and publishing the results."

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