Is academic work at university the same as working on the production line at, say, a pie factory?
Cynics might say that yes, the two have become similar, especially at the pointy end of the semester when marking piles up with no end in sight.
Scholars are included in current media discussions about the working poor - those reduced to taking casual or short-term contracts because of a lack of permanent positions. Also on the list are workers in hospitality, retailing and manufacturing, among others.
A report for the Australian Council of Trade Unions by Brian Howe, a former deputy prime minister of the country, expresses concern at the number of Australians in casual positions. On average they receive 25 per cent more money per hour but miss out on sick pay, holiday pay and long-service leave, and other entitlements that permanent staff get (not to mention job security). Some workers have been forced to remain casuals for up to 25 years, Howe says.
The National Tertiary Education Union says that 60 per cent of Australian academics are sessionals or on short-term contracts, as opposed to the national average of 40 per cent claimed by the ACTU.
In television and newspaper reports, mostly illustrated by pictures of workers on factory lines or shop floors, both sides of the business environment state their case: the ACTU for workers' security; the Australian Industry Group, the country's employers' organisation, for entrepreneurs who want to minimise "the risk of being stuck with surplus workers" (as a recent editorial in The Sydney Morning Herald put it).
There are good arguments on both sides. But no one, it seems, is looking at the bigger picture in relation to higher education: the concept that casualisation of the academic workforce is bad for Australia as a whole, and contributes to the "lucky country" being in danger of becoming the "dumb country".
Through casualisation we are losing the power of some of our best educated, smartest people. These are the people who make your children into lawyers, doctors, journalists, teachers, accountants, nurses, scientists, architects and myriad other professionals; they are the ones from whom brilliant ideas can come in the form of medical breakthroughs, communication innovations and creative energy. Sadly, 60 per cent of them, many of whom have spent 10 years at university becoming experts in their fields, are far less productive than they ought to be.
Instead of doing research when they are not teaching, they are running around looking for their next job, or working in other jobs just to pay the bills. Thus, the universities miss out on many academic articles and books that could improve their standing and increase their funding.
Instead of building up their own academic teaching units in the fields they know best, casuals are used to do the donkey work, and many change units every semester - thus, all the work they did for past units is lost. What a waste.
It is time that higher education was considered in a holistic way: short-term cost-cutting is undermining a major chunk of the knowledge economy. We can't treat it the same as stacking shelves in supermarkets or packing pies in boxes.
So let's move the argument away from the worker-employee squabble, which can never be won, and into the larger arena of what Australia wants to be when it grows up.