Bettina Rösler is a casual researcher and university tutor. She completed her PhD thesis, “Reimagining Cultural Diplomacy through Cosmopolitan Linkages: Australian Artists-in-Residence in Asia”, at the Institute for Culture and Society (University of Western Sydney) in 2015.
Bettina has also completed master degrees in English Literature/Cultural Studies at TU Dresden (Germany) and Translation Studies at Auckland University (New Zealand). The primary focus of her work is cultural and arts policy, Australia-Asia relations, and the translation of cultures and intercultural dialogue, with a focus on cultural activities and the arts.
We invited Bettina to share her perspectives with us as part of the lead-up to the #securework tweetchat on FRIDAY 17 July, 11am AEDT. The tweetchat aims to be part of a national conversation around insecure academic work. Also participating will be @unicasual @NTEUnational @acahacker @KateMfD and @NAPUAustralia.
The semester is long over, yet I’m spending some time every week answering student emails regarding grades or additional feedback for assignments.
There seems to be an expectation for me to be eternally available for any potential issues relating to the particular units I taught. Students request more feedback on assignments or new unit coordinators require details from last term.
The problem here is the fact that I am not on anyone’s payroll and I am not getting paid for the time I spend responding to emails. I am a casual academic and I am not alone. More than half of universities’ academic staff are only casually employed (Bexley, James & Arkoudis 2011). These already high numbers of casual academics are increasing (Rea 2014), and I personally know at least a dozen highly qualified and competent early career researchers who struggle under precarious work conditions.
Like many others, I have recently completed a PhD and fought ever since to make a living.
Every term, I have to renegotiate work contracts, which can involve weeks of uncertainty and, sometimes, no secure contract until well into the semester. After an already long ‘income pause’ (i.e. semester break, which is even longer and more daunting over summer), any further income delays are likely to test my credit card limit. Receiving a salary for about 26 weeks a year is simply not sustainable.
I am in my mid-thirties, still sharing a flat (OK, I live in Sydney), cannot afford a car, and have not had a holiday in over a decade. I couldn’t even get credit for a new computer. Twice every year, I seriously consider going on benefits because I’m afraid I won’t be able to pay rent.
Biannually, I am thrown into deep existential debates on my position in this flawed academic system, and what I could do differently. How can I improve my chances and further my career? But it is very hard. For half of the year, I over-commit to make up for the time I’m not teaching. Finding suitable in-between research assistant gigs is rare and generally doesn’t match up with the semester dates. This has affected my social life and mental state. Sadly, this is likely to affect many casuals’ teaching quality (Clohesy 2015). While I am putting a lot of effort into tutorial preparation, I always feel I could do so much more. I could run a blog or Facebook group for the students; I could find more additional material; I could help develop and improve the unit content and incorporate some of the students’ feedback. Unfortunately, casuals are rarely given the opportunity or platform to do so – let alone be paid for it.
As a casual academic, paid time will always have priority over other (potentially better career-furthering) activities. This is a huge problem for casuals as an important part of an academic career consists of in-kind contributions in form of journal issue editing, articles or book reviews, sitting on boards and committees, chairing conferences, and so on. I simply don’t have the time to properly develop my research profile. I cannot attend conferences as they are too expensive, and I have no affiliation for potential funding. This lack of affiliation is often additionally problematic in terms of grant applications. Moreover, there is very little time left for substantial writing between teaching, marking, and job applications.
Applying for academic positions is tedious and almost a full-time job in itself. Numerous highly complex criteria need to be addressed. Besides, in the current job climate, it can be a very depressing activity. Not only are there very few permanent and/or full-time positions available, but in my area in particular there are just so many highly qualified young academics out there. If you get an average of 100 applicants for an academic positions, obviously the one with the most closely aligned research background, experience, and highest number of publications will get the job. There will always be an (almost) perfect candidate with specialised skills, which makes any other applicant’s transferable skills seem redundant. Unfortunately, I feel my research area is one of the least funded, with hardly any suitable jobs available.
Even securing suitable casual teaching can be a challenge.
While there are so-called eligibility lists and casual staff registers, hardly any unit convener or coordinator ever seems to look at those. Most jobs are shared via connections, and these can be hard to establish. I have made connections to various unit coordinators who praised my work and loved my initiative. Yet, many of them are only casually employed themselves, thus in no position to re-employ tutors for another term.
Another problem with this ‘system’ is the fact that, in some cases, the most convenient staff option (i.e. the nearest available casual) may not be the most suitable person for the job. Not everyone has the necessary skills to teach, let alone run, a unit. However, for casual employment this doesn’t seem to matter too much. Many of these eligibility lists or casual staff registers have strict selection processes in place, including complex applications and interviews, and it is frustrating to know that no one is really taking your skills and experience seriously enough to even consider your application.
Understandably though, most overworked and often casual unit coordinators simply don’t have the time to look at long lists of potentially more suitable applicants. Most unit planning is dictated by student enrolments, which puts unit coordinators in an impossible position. They cannot offer jobs until enrolments are finalised, and often need last-minute tutors. Besides, many universities appear to prefer parallel tutorials as most students prefer certain times over others. This means tutors cannot get three or four tutes in a row; rather two different tutors will have to cover the parallel sessions. Moreover, many schools don’t want to have tutors taking on too many tutorials as tight marking deadlines may not be met. Many universities are conscious of the hours casual tutors work due to their right to seek conversion to permanent employment if employed on a regular basis. Consequently, I often end up teaching various subjects in a number of schools.
I have been a casual or sessional academic for more than two years now. I have been doing everything from teaching to research assistant and admin.
I love teaching, but hate the work environment. So much so that I am seriously considering saying goodbye to academia. It feels like a Catch 22 from which I cannot escape. I see many senior academics toil away and, while most seem to enjoy dedicating their entire lives to research, this does not work for everyone.
Increasingly, I think it may not work for me.
Should it really come down to a choice between working 70+ hours weeks on continuing (or ‘tenure-track’) vs casual academic precarity? I believe that there needs to be an option in between: solid academic positions for highly qualified people who appreciate a decent work/life balance.
Bexley, Emmaline, James, Richard & Arkoudis, Sophie (2001). The Australian academic profession in transition: Addressing the challenge of reconceptualising academic work and regenerating the academic workforce. Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education.
Clohesy, Lachlan (2015). The Casualisation of Academia: impacts on Australian universities. The AIM Network.
Rea, Jeannie (2014). University work becoming more precarious. Connect, 7(2). p. 7-8.
University of Western Sydney (2011). UWS Code of conduct: Guide for academic and professional employees.