Australian universities harbour a not-so-secret sweatshop.
Research suggests that they employ more academics casually than in permanent roles, mostly to teach the hundreds of thousands of Australian and international students who entrust these prestigious institutions with their education and their future careers. A recent report from the Australian Tertiary Education and Quality Standards Agency (TEQSA) suggests that a high proportion of casual academics may be linked to growing levels of student attrition in higher education.
This is not likely to be because casual scholars make worse teachers: indeed, for the most part, the students are in good hands. But the teachers are not.
Although they are essential to the running of universities, seasonally employed academics are taken for granted. Institutions know that they have trained too many PhDs, saturating the market for academic employment and providing an endless supply of the cheap sessional labour that maximises income from student fees.
That profit stems partly from the fact that a vast amount of the work done by casual academics goes entirely unpaid. This willingness among junior scholars to make up the difference between hours worked and hours paid is not the result of their benevolence, however. Nor does it stem from their passion for their subject, or their self-interest in building a portfolio likely to culminate in a lucrative professorship. It is quite simply that the work needs to be done if students are to get an education. And complaining about it would jeopardise casual staff’s future employment prospects – such that they are – and those who do complain often report being made to feel incompetent or inefficient.
Casual staff’s precarity is only exacerbated by their struggle to pay rent and make good career decisions between semesters, when work is dangled before them – only, quite often, to then be withdrawn. Of course, casual staff can withdraw from a commitment at the last minute, too. But although this might be irritating for universities, they do at least have plenty of other options.
One of the most hurtful experiences for casual staff is that when they describe their plight, the eyes of their tenured colleagues often glaze over. A clue as to why can perhaps be found in history. A little more than a century ago, Australian schools paid their trainee teachers very little – and sometimes nothing – until they were examined by an often-tardy inspector. This pupillage system was tolerated by the trainees because they hoped that by taking part it would ultimately result in a career that was rewarding, well respected and well paid. But, for many, these privileges never materialised. More trainees were on the books than were ever going to become teachers because that kept the system cheap. Schools even preferred to employ female pupil teachers because they believed that they would get married and leave before reaching the point of clamouring for permanent employment.
Many people pointed out the unfairness of this system and the dreadful working conditions of young teachers, but it nevertheless continued for a shamefully long time. Part of the problem was structural. In hierarchical professions such as teaching, those who have succeeded often dismiss the fact that their job security sits atop such exploitation because they can usually say, truthfully, that they endured it, too – so why shouldn’t their successors?
Those at the bottom are likely to accept this view too; unlike factory workers, they do not see those above them in the hierarchy as their bosses so much as models for what they hope to become. But the fact is that however hard previous generations had to scrap for permanent academic positions, the present generation of early career academics have it even harder. Many will not reap the ultimate career benefits of their free labour, and they deserve more sympathy from their luckier colleagues than they are currently getting.
More importantly, though, we really need to look to the system. However willingly trainee teachers may have gone along with pupillage, it can’t be denied that their exploitation was a shameful era in Australia’s educational history. It is a history that we need to stop repeating in our universities.
Hannah Forsyth is lecturer in history and Jedidiah Evans is a casual lecturer at the Australian Catholic University.