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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.