Australia’s sessional staff are wrung out and then discarded

Universities’ shabby treatment of casual academics flies in the face of their professed commitment to education and dignity, says Jedidiah Evans

September 7, 2017
Source: James Fryer

It is not often that your views as a sessional academic are sought out by institutional hierarchies. So when a university where I used to work on a casual basis asked me to contribute to a survey measuring staff engagement, I took the opportunity to engage seriously.

In a previous piece for Times Higher Education, Hannah Forsyth and I argued that the exploitation of casual academics, while by no means a new phenomenon, is a systemic issue that demands attention. So if, in the following summary of my survey responses, I have excised the name of the university, it is not because it sought to address my concerns. It is because its failings are shared throughout Australia’s tertiary sector, and addressing them should be viewed as a common responsibility.

How is our university going?

In our mission statement, assessment guidelines and core curriculum, we aim to reinforce the importance of a person’s dignity, and to spur on staff and students to protect and champion the dignity of others. Human dignity is a nebulous thing, but it tends to be a characteristic of a thriving community: we might see something such as humiliation as its antithesis.

As a sessional staff member, I have felt the indignity of barely making rent. I have been forced to resign myself to working untold hours for no money. I have had promised work taken away without communication, and then been condescended to with a shrug and a bemused “sorry about that”. I face each semester with the humbling anticipation of no work, or of too little work, or of work unrelated to my field or experience.

In a coordinating role, I am expected to be involved in the increasingly convoluted and onerous task of unit outline review. This involves countless emails, phone meetings, revisions, entire overhauls of web pages, toing and froing with administrative staff. And yet I am expected to do all this for nothing. I tracked 38 extra hours of work spent on this process alone this semester.

Nor do the two hours of face-to-face lecture time for which I am actually paid account for the hours of my preparation. I receive overwhelmingly positive reports for my units. Students stand and clap (would you believe it?) at the end of my final lectures. I respond diligently to their emails. I spend time with their essays. I deliver thoughtful and detailed content. I fashion myself as a co-learner: someone who comes alongside these students, conscious of their capacity to teach me and each other, aware of their profound dignity and worth. I aim to inspire them to extend this same generosity to others they encounter. And all the while, I cannot buy petrol or pay for my rail pass. I cannot dream of saving for a home, or even afford to rent one with any kind of security. I suffer the indignity of being expected to instil in my students something like moral responsibility, all the while enduring the reality of being cheap labour for a university that seems utterly uninterested in my own plight.

This university humiliates me while championing its own commitment to dignity. 

How can we support you?

The most obvious form of support for a sessional staff member is more equitable remuneration and the promise (or at least the possibility) of more work. It is tricky to teach well when you are unsure that you will able to pay rent or buy groceries. It is difficult to teach well when you teach a unit once, and never have that unit again (and thus those resources become nearly worthless). It is difficult to teach well when you have no ongoing relationship with students because there are no repeat opportunities to work with them. It is difficult to teach well when the expectations of upper administration seem to misunderstand the primary values that the university stands for: that is, developing ethical citizens who generously serve and dignify others.

I can see how that might be achieved. I aim to do it, and I believe that I manage to do so, imperfectly, at times. But there has not been a single piece of administrative alteration or process change that has sincerely aimed to benefit students in this way. As far as I can see, each project is a solipsistic practice of self-congratulation. And I love this university truly. I love the opportunities it affords me. I love the students particularly. But the disconnect between the classroom and the boardroom is profound and unthinking. And one of the ways this is clearest is in the treatment of sessionals.

What do we do now?

I hope it is clear – despite my obvious frustration – that I do not approach this work from any sense of deep entitlement. The opportunity to work as an educator in a tertiary institution is one not afforded to many, and I am profoundly humbled by the opportunity. But we cannot live this way. We are this strange underclass of educators who are wrung out and then discarded.

Many of us hold the torch for the possibilities of education. Many of us still believe in our responsibilities to those who will inherit the future. Yet this university seems to be increasingly full of distant people whose responsibilities are to a corporate machine, well oiled by the high fees that students pay and by bequests with various strings attached. For now, we will keep doing this work, quietly and diligently. But we cannot continue for ever. We are being hollowed out. We are losing hope. And surely this is the last thing that this university wants as its legacy.

Jedidiah Evans is lecturing at the University of Wollongong this semester.

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Reader's comments (2)

For many years the UK had similarly scandalous employment practices in H/E but slowly the institutions are now coming on board and offering permanent fractional posts to those lecturing staff who have been hourly paid year on year. Another practice to look towards, and this time in Australia, is having a minimum percentage threshold of permanent staff. This allows for volatility without having an unnecessarily large workforce on crappy contracts.
I'm glad to hear that, Seanie. In my experience, permanency of any kind is rare in Australian institutions, and I know the data is difficult to determine since the HES (Higher Education Statistics) doesn't collect data for casual staff. As for a minimum percentage, that is an interesting idea, though I haven't heard much discussion here either (particularly given the increase in casualisation that is consistent across the tertiary sector). I should also add that women are proportionally more likely to be in insecure forms on employment in the university sector.