It gets worse!

This post is co-authored by Karina Luzia and Kate Bowles of CASA, and Jonathan O’Donnell of The Research Whisperer. It has been cross-posted to both blogs. 

It Gets Better’ is a great program, hosted in the United States, that aims to tell…

“…lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them.”

The message is a simple one: Growing up is hard. School is crap, but don’t despair. It gets better.

This is a really effective campaign because it has found a way to tell the truth and help the people who need it.

It Gets Worse!We need a similar campaign for our hourly, adjunct, casual, sessional (HACS) academics, and for PhD students who dream of becoming professors one day.

The problem is that while we would love to be able to say that it gets better, we can’t. For the majority who undertake the PhD in the hope of securing a higher education academic career with access to the fullest range of benefits,

it gets worse!

The situation isn’t getting better for HACS any time soon, and we need to start telling the truth about this. Recently, Jonathan had a heartbreaking conversation with one of his researchers about getting out of academia. He doesn’t want to – he loves teaching and he loves research. But it is time to buy a house and start a family, and he can’t do that in the position he’s in.

Here’s why: HACS are the majority of academic employees, and are fundamental to the survival of universities, but in return they forfeit security for themselves. They are employed by the hour and can be dismissed with no notice. After completing seven to ten years of higher education, they have the same prospect of job security as people stacking shelves in supermarkets. They are typically working part-time, or are working at multiple universities to stitch together the equivalent of a full-time wage.

It gets worse

Universities in the UK have recently introduced zero-hour contracts, which make no promises about actual work while seeking to limit people’s investment in seeking work elsewhere. A zero-hours contract is to employment what a parking permit is to university parking: if there are no spaces, you don’t get to park even though you have a qualifying sticker (that you paid quite a considerable amount for). All it provides is permission to search, and queue, and hope, and hang about until someone leaves.

When it comes to hiring, universities are only slowly coming around to transparent or competitive processes for HACS. That makes them vulnerable to the most unpredictable, despotic, discriminatory and divisive hiring practices, as the search for work becomes a de-professionalising hustle while the work itself becomes a cobbling together of bits and pieces from casual teaching, ‘soft’ money, and short-term contracts.

It gets worse

HACS are also blocked from accessing opportunities to improve their position. They are not eligible to apply for grants. They have limited access to professional development, or do so in their own time and at their own cost. They fund their own employment to a significant degree: universities hand out paid mobile phones as perks for those in already highly remunerated and resourced leadership roles, while HACS bring all their own tech resources – laptops, mobiles, cords, chargers – sometimes to a hot-desk, sometimes just near an available wall socket – to manage the routine university teaching, assessment and record-keeping that’s now online.

When it comes to decision-making and university planning, HACS are often not included in staff meetings, even those that directly affect their own employment circumstances. They are rarely consulted on the development of policies and procedures that affect their working lives. They sit on the periphery of the departments and schools that they teach in, sometimes for years. They cannot apply for promotion. A sector that is scrupulous about ensuring students are represented in governance at every level up to Council routinely forgets to value in the insights of HACS academics.

It gets worse

“There is also a general reluctance for universities to invest in professional development for contingent staff due to the perceived lack of long term organisational benefit. These intangible disadvantages also result in early career academics being unable to gain security outside the work environment, such as seeking home loans, placing strain on social relationships due to the general insecurity factor.” – S Andrews, L Bare, P Bentley, L Goedegebuure, C Pugsley, and B Rance, 2016. Contingent academic employment in Australian universities. LH Martin Institute and AHEIA:Melbourne [412 kb PDF].

Crucially for ECRs, HACS are also often locked out of university research funding schemes. In a system where employment and promotion are contingent on research funding, many universities and funding agencies bar them from applying because they aren’t defined as university employees. Without the capacity to apply for funds in their own right, they are locked into doing research assistant work for others. At best, this results in short-term contracts where their critical early career research development is subordinated to what other people want to do. They don’t have the resources or the freedom to develop their own research trajectory, build their own profile for original work, or follow up on their PhD research.

It gets worse

All HACS, regardless of their academic career aspirations, are excluded from paid parental leave, unfair dismissal claims, carers’ leave and compassionate leave, not to mention recreation leave and sick leave. When HACS get sick and miss a class, the university promptly deducts their pay, even if this means they are most likely to be the ones making up the work later in consultation. In Australia, they get half the pension (superannunation) contribution of permanent staff, a discriminatory impact that multiplies the longer they wait in line. In other countries, they may get no pension payment at all.

In short, the situation is this: an employment category that was originally designed to cover temporary, short-term gaps in staffing has grown to become the predominant employment mechanism at universities, and universities have completely failed to update their policies, their processes or their self-representation to acknowledge this or handle it properly. Instead, universities have locked themselves into a budget box where hourly-paid workers are core to their business survival [412 kb PDF], while having to hide this fact to protect their public image.

Can it get better?

If we want to change this inequitable system, we need to make it visible, and we need to challenge the language used to make it seem like an opportunity and an advantage. ‘Flexible’, for example, isn’t a friendly word in this space.

In particular, we need to let prospective higher degree students know what prospective employment looks like. As CASA said recently, “PhD recruitment [is] … increasingly looking like a scheme to develop an academically qualified casual workforce for the future.” That is, to perpetuate a system of inequality to keep university workforce costs as low as possible.

Some academics, particularly in the USA, have recently begun talking to their students about their adjunct status, so that the students understand why they aren’t always available, and cannot undertake unpaid extra work. In Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has begun a similar campaign, with a focus on persuading securely hired academics to stand more openly with their HACS colleagues.

One simple strategy for people coming out of a PhD is to set a term limit on how long they will work insecurely. Jonathan has two friends who were in this situation for years. One found her first permanent position after 10 years. The other was forty before she found herself in a permanent position. It is up to each individual to decide how long they are willing to wait. However, making them aware that they should set a term limit is a structural change.

Another structural change is to let all the parties affected know what is going on. Industry associations, for example, have a vested interest in ensuring that future employees are properly educated. They sit on course advisory committees, industry advisory committees, and other governance structures. Professional standards bodies hold similar roles – they govern how courses are taught, and the standards that govern what constitutes a professional degree. Perhaps they don’t care that most of their future employees, future professional members, are being taught this way. Maybe they do.

Finally, as a long-time member of his union, Jonathan argues that we need to continue to encourage the NTEU in its efforts to focus on achieving justice and improved working conditions for HACS, and make union membership effective for HACS academics. This is a work-in-progress that all union members should invest in and support.

A colleague recently pointed out to Jonathan that many academics have never thought about doing anything else except being an academic. That single-minded determination is great for getting through a PhD and focusing on research. It isn’t so helpful in recognizing that merit and resilience won’t fix the current academic job market. We need to imagine the PhD differently and promote it more honestly.

This may mean strengthening the pathway to non-academic careers.

Or it may mean reimagining and crucially reconfiguring our ideas around what it is to be an academic and to do academic work to reflect a reality that includes those academics, teachers and researchers, whose HACS employment status has meant they are not counted in all those things that matter in higher education.

We will all be better off when we can say to PhD students that it’s worth the effort, because it gets better.

But we’re not there yet.

For now, it gets worse!


  1. Reblogged this on Lindathestar and commented:
    This is a serious situation. I wonder how effective the industry associations could be; one factor is that many casual academics are excellent at what they do. Being casual, or secure, is not an indicator of skill or teaching quality. Being secure is a way to keep people connected and enthusiastic, though.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This thing about excellence is really important. Critics of casualisation are often asked whether we’re not being critical of our casually employed colleagues, and the answer is: absolutely not. In fact, it’s really the opposite. Universities are locking out a generation of talented, committed, trained, qualified, passionate, experienced and excellent scholars, teachers, researchers and administrators, and the reason this is a bad thing isn’t because casually hired staff are of lesser ability, but because their conditions of employment are derived from a cost cutting strategy first and last.

    On what can be done to help, over at CASA we both think the first step is to be really, really open about the situation, especially at the point of PhD recruitment. If you’re applying to a PhD program, ask to see the data that they have on post-PhD employment from their program specifically, and more generally into the field you want to work in. How many new jobs are there in that field every year, relative to the numbers graduating with a PhD internationally? If you’re taking up a PhD in order to progress to an academic career, you really deserve to know what universities know about this.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Yes, this absolutely resonates with me, having just finished teaching a section of a course while employed as a casual. I enjoyed the teaching and the students are great – enthusiastic and interesting – but I had no input to the whole course, was not invited to participate in the end of course student feed-back session, was not paid for all the time it took to update all the lectures to keep them relevant, was not paid for the all the hours I spent marking and responding to student questions and the timetabling was a nightmare; I was expected to teach two back-to-back sessions 10.30-12.30 and 12.30-14.30, which were described as one lecture and one tutorial for the same120 students.Thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for making the invisible visible. I feel invisible most of the time – I certainly dont get paid for the additional work that I inevitably do in order to ensure our students have the best opportunity to learn and grow, I dont mind from the perspective of paying it forward but I am sure that this commitment is known and taken largely for granted by the heads of school. I was sat down the other day to discuss my workload for semester one and two – 2017 and I was basically told after 7 years that I can be confident that I have plenty of work secured for next year S1 and then in a half whisper.. also S2! but S2 cannot be confirmed as that is not allowed. For heaven sakes, change the bloody rules. I need a bank loan to purchase a home and I think that having worked constantly without break for that many years -I earned the loyalty and respect that I have shown the University – we should be seen as part time workforce and be given some basic courtesies including pro rata holiday and sick pay. Who is looking out for sessionals? Sessional staff are the ones who get the highest GTS and are voted by the students as the best lecturers – heads of school know this too. In a graduate school of business where big dollars are paid for EMBAs and MBAs, the sessionals do much of the heavy lifting and are not being nurtured and supported. For a university that has embraced design thinking – this key customer has not had their views sought as to how they would like to contribute and be supported to continue to add even greater value. This is a very influential group for students – the university needs to leverage this cohort and not alienate it further by treating us as second or third class citizens. The university’s values need to be enacted not simply espoused.


    • Thanks, Christin.

      We really need to hear from a head of department here. I fear that they don’t just know and take for granted your extra work, but they actively plan for it (or at least figure it into their plans).

      I think that the idea of sessionals as a key group within the university community is a powerful one. We spend so much time trying to understand other parts of the university community (students, alumni, industry, staff) that we clearly have the tools. Recognition and consultation would be a great first step.


  5. Perhaps this speaks only to my own experiences having been in HACS employment status for nearly 10 years across various universities (which is my self-imposed limit by the way – I plan to be out of the door after 10 years if I’ve not found a permanent position). Part of the challenge the NTEU faces is the lack of willingness of senior academics to participate in efforts to improve the situation. Simply put, it is far cheaper for our lab director to hire staff on a casual basis or on short-term fixed contracts that can be terminated on a whim than it is for them to make a push for establishing a long-term or permanent position. Our lab director makes no secret of this fact. Without a fundamental change in funding mechanisms, senior academics have little to motivate them to changing their hiring practices.


    • In the past, in Australia, there would have been a time-limit on how long your lab manager would have been able to employ someone in this way. The idea was that it was a temporary measure, intended to cover a short-term increase in work, or a vacancy (such as between someone leaving and someone else being appointed).

      It isn’t impossible to bring this sort of rule back into play. It could be incorporated into a university enterprise agreement, for example.

      My point is that it doesn’t require a fundamental change in funding mechanisms, just a recognition of the problem, and the will to fix it.

      I acknowledge that your lab manager would go through some temporary pain as they transitioned from a budget based around casual workers to a budget based around secure workers. But that pain would be worth it.


  6. Couple of things that occur to me – We (and we being trade unions) need to get better at educating staff about what they are getting into. Many HACS have no idea when I talk to them that they aren’t an employee of their university, they are a *worker* a critical difference with all sorts of ramifications for legal redress when it all goes pear-shaped.

    “One simple strategy for people coming out of a PhD is to set a term limit on how long they will work insecurely. Jonathan has two friends who were in this situation for years. ”

    I’m a bit torn on this one – I don’t venture a view on this unless directly asked, I actually tell people the term limit I set for employment was six months – I think by and large doing casual work likely hinders not increases your chances. However it is difficult to articulate this without feeling like your critiquing the choices of others. So I’d be interested how other people deal with it (Saying “I’d rather not comment on that” feels like a cop-out).


    • I am also hesitant on the time frame as described here, particularly when linked to age. Someone was 40 when they got a permanent job? There are plenty of people in PhD programs at age 40! To assume this indicates a long-time post-PhD is to be locked into an image of someone starting a PhD straight out of undergraduate studies and finishing in their late 20s. While this is still common in Australia and the UK, it’s not in other places (for instance the US, where the median time to a humanities PhD is something like 12 years). In Germany, the habilitation system means landing a permanent job by 40 is doing pretty well!!
      Anyhow, I agree with the other points here, just have an issue with the implicit ageism of “anyone over 40 should give it up”.


      • Hi Katrina

        My apologies if I gave the impression that I was suggesting that anyone over 40 should give up. I didn’t mean that, but on rereading it, I can see how it might be read that way. The person I had in mind did do their PhD straight out of undergraduate studies.

        I think it is up to everybody to decide with their own time limit might be. However, I am strongly in favour of people working out what their own limit might be.

        Thanks for your comments.


    • Hi Charles

      Excellent point about the legal standing of academics in insecure employment. I suspect it varies according to country (ie legal jurisdiction), but it is absolutely worth finding out what your actual standing is (well before things go pear-shaped).

      In your post, Free research questions about the academy, you ask:

      “What would happen to the career choices of a full time Academic/Adjunct/Associate Tutor if they were given five hours of pensions guidance?”

      Maybe that is the way to have the conversation about term limits. Lay out the scenarios for superannuation, based on various lengths of time spent in insecure employment.

      I also would be interested in how other people deal with this. Mostly, I’m just keen to raise the question with people, so that they can think about it themselves.


      • Excellent point – I mention pensions a lot to people because I think the day to day struggle of getting by with a HACS means that people might not realise that financially giving up earlier has a bigger impact because they can make more frequent meaningful contributions to a pension.

        I’m generally big on financial education for all academics (whatever their employment status) because it seems a bit of a dirty topic. I often see people under taking tasks for free simply because they didn’t know to ask for money!*

        * I’m perfectly honest in that I love money (well what it allows me to do) and my main career goal is to continuously max out my salary (for whatever given grade I’m in).

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for the post. As a researcher on the academic profession, I share the same concerns of you and many of the commenters. I also hope that greater transparency is a solution, but this is very difficult. As Kate Bowles commented, we need to know more about the employment prospects such as new positions recruited each year by discipline, staff turnover, retirements, but this is not publicly available.

    The only positive thing which I think is missing from this discussion is that PhD employment outcomes are actually very good overall. Around 75% of recent domestic PhDs in FT employment according to Graduate Careers Australia, and 90%+ in professional employment across population and almost no unemployment based on Census data.

    We must be careful not to assume time spent in casual employment is the same as time spent post PhD in casual employment. Most casuals do not have PhDs. For those who enrol and complete a PhD I don’t think “it gets worse”. The prospects are much better with a PhD, but they remain poor for academic careers.


  8. […] a lot has happened to fuel our fears of impending doom. And, as some more recent stories reveal, it gets worse for academics, and writing better or being more productive won’t fix things (although they probably […]


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