Sessional Academic Challenges—Part 2
By Dr Joanna Griffith
Working casually as an academic is somewhat flexible, particularly in research work, when hours can be put in around other commitments. ‘It was great at the time … I could work whatever hours fitted in with my family responsibilities. I could leave early to pick my daughter up from school or start late if I had to drop my son at day care’ says Dr Anna Hopkins. I also valued the flexible work conditions of research when my father died suddenly; I could fit research work around the interstate travel required to sort out his affairs, and my other casual non-academic work.
Most teaching duties are less flexible than research. Obviously, apart from some administration duties, face-to-face teaching, requires, well, a face. It often encompasses fairly brief hours, frequently in the middle of the day. These can effectively exclude the ability to work paid shifts elsewhere. For example, I would give up a 10-hour shift working as a locum veterinarian to demonstrate from 11 am to 1 pm and then from 2 pm–4 pm, wiping out the day. At roughly the same pay rate, I would earn less than half for a day’s work as a casual academic compared to work in industry.
The Intellectual Rewards
Intellectually, casual academic work can be very rewarding, particularly the student contact, something mentioned by all casual academics interviewed for this piece. And this is probably the main motivator for those who seek this work again and again. In my case, I enjoy the student and staff contact, the challenge of teaching intelligent, motivated students at a tertiary level, and the chance to be involved in research, even peripherally. ‘I loved it, it felt like I was actually being an academic, I adored getting a chance to teach what I thought was important … I liked encouraging students ... I still have ideas for courses I’d like to teach!’ enthuses Dr Rhiannon Davies.
Although specific training in teaching or research by employers is still fairly uncommon, casual academics develop quite a skill set in organisation, teamwork, problem-solving, communication and empathy. They learn a great deal about teaching tertiary students, as a great deal of the day-to-day small-group teaching is undertaken by this group. These are obviously extremely translatable and employable skills.
As rewarding as the work can be, the conditions for most casual academics are brutal. Most casual academics interviewed for this piece mentioned substantial unpaid hours were required, significantly reducing the hourly pay rate. These can take the form of preparation or revision of teaching materials, marking, administrative duties such as answering student emails, or having student meetings, laboratory work, writing manuscripts, or applying for grants: everything that full-time academics do. For example, in my case, one paid lecture required a full day’s preparation, and then at least an hour of administration afterwards—10 hours work for about A$125. Another anonymous academic estimates that she puts in roughly double the number of hours she is paid for each week, halving her hourly pay. She is working for approximately A$26 per hour, less than a cleaner.
This also occurs in casual research work. ‘I … ended up doing a lot of unpaid work in order to finish up and publish the work,’ says Dr Hopkins. ‘All my other colleagues on these projects were employed full time by the university so didn’t understand when it took a long time for me to finish things or when I was unable to work all hours to get things done.’
‘Academic work is not casual in nature’ says Paul Kniest, Policy and Research Coordinator for the NTEU. ‘Lecturing, tutoring and demonstrating are responsibilities underpinned by years of scholarship and research. At a very minimum, casual academics should be employed on a fixed-term basis to enable them to maintain their discipline currency and access important employment conditions including leave and superannuation.’
And that’s the thing. While it might not be important when you are starting out, benefits such as sick leave, carer’s leave, parental leave and holiday pay become increasingly attractive as financial responsibilities increase. Casual employees usually have no paid leave, paid public holidays, only very short notice of termination of employment, no severance benefits, no paid sick leave and no education leave. There is no guarantee of work beyond the end of the contract and most work permanently with only one-week notice for termination. Many casual academics, even with long employment histories or particularly valuable skill sets, are not given preference for work, especially over cheaper employees. This can be particularly frustrating when courses have been developed by a particular casual academic, only to be ‘given’ away to less qualified cheaper casuals (e.g., those without PhDs) or other full-time staff.
‘I taught the unit each year for four years until the university employed a new full-time staff member and gave the unit to them. I was told that the university has to prefer full-time staff over casual staff when allocating units. After a year, they offered me the unit again, but I was unable to take it due to family commitments (also, I was a bit put out at having had the unit taken away from me only to be offered again a year later),’ says one casual academic, who chooses to remain anonymous.