How do you help and support your precariat colleagues?
At Research Whisperer, we engage a lot with issues of precarity and casualisation. We think it’s a huge issue that needs urgent address in academia, and it’s a global problem.
We were recently invited to speak to casuals at an NTEU Victoria event where I talked about maintaining a consistent researcher profile while being part of the precariat, and Jonathan spoke on how to get research funding as a casual. We acknowledge from the start that while we focus on individual strategy and knowledge the issues of precarity are systemic and heavily embedded in our sector.
One of the things that I wanted to write about after the event was how those of us in more secure employment can help in this bleak landscape of increasing casualisation, and exclusionary and inequitable institutional dynamics.
Those who are in casual or fixed-term appointments are less likely and able to advocate within the academic system. Short (often multiple, simultaneous) contracts and insecurity mean that it is difficult to build momentum in fighting for equitable conditions and opportunities. That is why actions like joining a union (like the NTEU in Australia) can shift the action to an organisation that has more traction and resources in the system. The NTEU and the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) created the Uni Casual website to inform and agitate for change.
Just recently, universities in my state (Victoria, Australia) published data that shows the extent of casualisation in our universities – it’s quite shocking. These figures are for those on casual contracts, and doesn’t count those on short fixed-term contracts (who I would also consider part of the precariat workforce).
Inger Mewburn wrote about concrete things that full-time academics can do to help their casual colleagues, and Eli Thorkelson wrote this excellent thread about how stably-employed scholars can support their precariously employed peers.
Here are some examples from their pieces:
INGER: “Make sure casuals get paid on time: every time I hire someone, I have to be on top of people higher in the management chain, and HR, to make sure the process is moved forward quickly. People should not have to start work without being paid – but it’s sadly routine. Oh, and while you’re at it – don’t take up their time with corridor meetings and ‘quick catch ups’ that amount to another hour or two of unpaid work each week. It’s not cool.”
ELI: “Do invite precarious folks to come talk about their work. A lot of it is really important, solid, serious research that just happens not to be anchored to a legible title. (Pay up front for their travel.)”
“Treat every academic administrator, service worker, IT worker, student affairs worker, campus gardener, bookkeeper, student worker, intern, TA, postdoc, etc, as if they were truly your colleague and deserved your full respect. Make sure other faculty people do this too.”
I am in a secure role right now, having had a series of fixed-term and casual contracts previously. I’m fully on board with what Inger and Eli suggest, and would add the following:
- Join the union and/or support union actions addressing casualisation in the sector. It’s extremely difficult to get cut-through with individual cases or voices, but we are all stronger together, whether we’re casual or more stably employed academics.
- Share information and strategies with your precariat colleagues on how they can work the system to their advantage. Be ready to listen and learn about specific situations. You’re in a position to know the ins and outs more thoroughly – how can we make sure our casual colleagues are getting what they’re entitled to and can position themselves well for good opportunities?
- Advocate for precariat voices in the running of our scholarly organisations and committees (with appropriate payment for their hours – they should not be doing it for free). This could be conferences, social events, and departmental committees (teaching and research). Think through the composition of ‘student’ or ‘staff’ committees: which voices are not at the table?
- Where you can, lead by example when it comes to supporting precariat colleagues.
- If you’re organising a conference, ensure there’s provision for concession fees, waived registrations, or travel bursaries. Try to minimise the expenses for those who may already be travelling to the event by setting up a billeting system (my research network colleagues who are currently organising AAI 7 are doing this).
- Advocate for precariat colleagues to be named researchers on grants if at all possible. This is an area from which casual and short fixed-term contract colleagues are routinely excluded, yet it can mean a lot for a person’s career if the grant gets up.
- Don’t assume that casual colleagues aren’t in a position to take up certain opportunities – always ask.
- If you’re running a research network or group, always err on the side of being inclusive when it comes to sharing information and offering membership (e.g. heavily discounted or free membership to casual/sessional staff).
This post on how to be an ally for equitable faculty workloads is a good one to read alongside mine, Inger’s, and Eli’s posts.
Everything I’ve covered in this post is part of what I consider being a good colleague is all about. Everyone is under pressure with their workloads and deadlines. Everyone. And there are many who choose to do things for their colleagues because they can.
One thing I’ve done recently that I’ve never done before is to offer to cover a few registrations for concession researchers (unsalaried / casual / students) at a research network conference later this year. I chose to do this because I couldn’t offer any billet space but wanted to be able to support emerging researchers and the conference overall. I flagged the contribution with no strings attached (the conference committee could decide who they wanted to offer them to), and am very much looking forward to hearing about the wonderful new research that’s taking place in the field. It won’t change the world, but it’ll hopefully mean the conference has a more diverse range of voices and research represented.
Edited to add: Thanks to Helen Kara for flagging the following resouce – a compilation of ideas for helping precariate colleagues (from CAPAL [Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians]).
The question was asked “If you were ten times bolder, what big idea would you suggest to counter theeffects of precarious labour in your institution?” – these are the participants’ answers.
For my 11th year of employment, I was awarded an 11 month contract. I’m a fulltime researcher. Our conditions of work were changed without notice and do not break the EBA, because the EBA says nothing about the terms and conditions under which research should take place. Nor does the workloads model that informs this. Nor does the university understand the business of doing research. That’s why we have to commit both to open data, so instead of just publishing papers, we have to prepare and publish data, and do all this while taking on an increasing load of admin, because paying professors to do admin is apparently more cost efficient than paying professionals to do admin. That’s because the silly fuckers will do more hours just to get their research done.
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I help my colleagues by suggesting they look on academia as a part time, temporary, or secondary role, they may undertake alongside their career in industry. By being a skilled professional qualified to work in industry they will be far more effective when they occasionally undertake academic roles. A few, a very few, might be pleasantly surprised to find full time permanent jobs in academia, but this will be very rare.
Also I suggest to those who have ambitions in academia that the learn to teach, that they undertake formal training in teaching and obtain educational qualifications. Many of my colleagues fail to understand that teaching is a skill which needs to be mastered. They think they just have to talk to inspire students, and are frustrated the students don’t turn up, don’t listen, cheat and ask for more marks. What I have been doing is showing my colleagues that there are other ways to teach which lessen the frustration and channel the students efforts more productively.
Another way I help colleagues is to suggest they undertake entrepreneurial training, through a start-up center, such as the Canberra Innovation Network. Academics are not so much employees as entrepreneurs, who have to keep coming up with ideas which they can sell to a funding agency. Like an entrepreneur, the academic has to find a way to work cooperatively with others on a speculative venture, and then ensure they retain sufficient intellectual property rights to be rewarded for their efforts. My colleagues tend to have a rosy view that if they work selflessly they will be rewarded for their efforts. They fail to understand that those around them are taking all the money and credit, not because these people are evil: it is just business. Through entrepreneurial training it is possible to learn to work with and for people in a mutually rewarding way.
My hope is to formalize some of this advice through short training modules. This semester I am teaching computing project students how to write a job application. The students spend a year working in a team on a project before graduating. The challenge is to be able to say what they have learned, what skills they have acquired, and what of the group project they can take individual credit for. Also through this I hope to showcase blended flipped, group and peer assessed teaching and later produce training modules on that: https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2019/03/how-to-blend-and-flip-course-for.html
Thanks for such a supportive piece. I’ve been a casual / short term contractor at RMIT for many years. When I asked the Union about fighting for equal Superannuation contributions for short term contracts, as a way of removing an obvious cost barrier for longer term employment; they said they wouldn’t take that battle on because they couldn’t win it. I don’t feel the NTEU represents casuals.
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Sorry to hear about your exps on that front, Helen. Current organising exec seems very keen to ensure that casualisation is on the agenda for change and advocacy so…we can hope.
I work a lot with industry, so I try and link up the right people with well paid non-academic jobs – I’m not a great believer in encouraging people to continue to do hourly paid insecure work simply because it is academia (which is just a job after all).
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Academia can be quite cultish in that respect – that attitude of being either in or out. Having been in and out of academic roles a few times is one of things I’m grateful for, in retrospect. Being able to think more broadly about where career paths may go is really good perspective.
I would encourage anyone in the business of employing casual staff – sessional teachers, research assistants, etc. – to remember that they are colleagues, not commodities. Suddenly cutting their hours because you’ve run out of funding on your grant, or the anticipated enrolments didn’t materialise may balance the books, but it can have a severe impact on people who are already struggling financially.
In my experience, the NTEU have not been good at responding to casuals (or always to permanent staff), and if you are trying to make ends meet, membership may not be worthwhile or financially possible. And of course, this means that the voices of casual staff are under-represented within the union. NTEU support for casual staff will only emerge when tenured and longer-term contract staff speak up for them.
The two tier superannuation levels are a disgrace, and discriminate against not only casuals but also women who are over-represented as part-time workers. This is a particularly egregious issue when fixed term, part-time and casual staff are employed on ARC grants – which include payment for the higher superannuation rates, and a clause stating that staff payed from grant funding should not be disadvantaged – but who are not paid the higher rate because ‘the EBA overrides it’. This is discriminatory, in breach of funding contracts, and ethically amounts to theft, but it is widespread. If you’re a researcher hiring staff on grant funding, make sure they get the super levels which have been paid for.
Thanks for this, Sarah – I’m with you about the difficulty of paying union dues when under financial pressure. I only became a union member after I stopped being a short-term staff member. Which is why I think more secure colleagues need to lead the way when it comes to bringing focus and action around better conditions. It’s extremely hard to change systems when casuals are so often (actively) excluded from them. Historically, consideration for research only staff has also been not great. I am hoping this will change.