Just not that into you

New Faculty Majority Board Member Jack Longmate, writing in the NFM blog this week, thinks that there are fresh signs of “potential for traction in public policy thinking” in relation to the conditions faced by academics working off the career track in America’s higher education system.

His optimism has been sparked by Robert Reich, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, who’s been speaking out against “casino capitalism”.  Reich was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, and he writes on the multiple conflicts of interest between public policy and the freewheeling trade of paper assets for short-term gain. Specifically, he’s suggesting at the moment that there’s something wrong with a vision of economic recovery that doesn’t include some means of valuing and protecting fair distribution.

For graduate students and others who are trapped in the adjunct/untenured/casualised/precarious/what-have-you economy, the prospect of impact on public policy is a far horizon. The fairness or otherwise of the deal on offer is much more directly affected by swamp level policy, made by those who manage the divisional budget out of which their wages are paid. This is where it can look as though Jack Longmate is right when he says that the calculation of risk to the employer goes like this:

… if we can sucker people into taking a bunch of part-time, temporary jobs, with lousy pay, working conditions, no offices or professional development (because let’s say we don’t consider them professionals) and spotty benefits on a permanent basis, let’s go for it

Ouch. If you’re an administrator who sets the terms for pay and conditions for the casually hired, please don’t write in. Sadly for everyone, it doesn’t matter how nice you are, or how hard this is for you. None of these actual thoughts need to have been said out loud in an actual policy-setting meeting, for it to feel this way to someone on the sharp end of a decision to cut hours or courses, or redefine tasks, in a way that leaves them doing more for less.  In a really tight budget, your needs and theirs seem pretty irreconcilable.

But it’s not all about the money. The part that I think will resonate with Australian casual academics relates to the times that hiring practices and working conditions send the strongest possible signal that universities “don’t consider them professionals”.

This might not be a public policy matter just yet, but is it good institutional policy? Institutions that are comfortable outsourcing core customer relations work to casual workers have made a three-part risk assessment: firstly, how low can service costs go before they flow through to customer satisfaction?  secondly, how much additional management work can the minority permanent staff pick up without negative impact on other business? and thirdly, how reliable is the locally available supply of suitably qualified replacement workers, if morale drops below a level that the current workforce will tolerate?

The risk for Australian universities is that their casual academics are among the most skilled and educated in the workforce. Unlike university students, who really are stuck with low-paying casual work because they aren’t yet qualified to escape, casual academics are at minimum degree-qualified. They’re experienced, informed, adaptable and exceptionally professional; they’re communicators, researchers, writers and project-managers; they have excellent teamwork skills; they’re used to working without supervision; they can handle difficult people and challenging situations, and they’re legislation compliant; they can lead and they can support; they deliver on task, on time, every time; and they’re really smart. Oh, and they’re also experts in their fields, some right up to the level of being PhD-qualified.

But they don’t leave.  Why is this?

I’ve been thinking about this since I got caught up briefly this week in a brisk and difficult exchange of views between Amanda Krauss (“Worst Professor Ever“) and Karen Kelsky (“The Professor is In“), over whether or not the current adjunct culture in the US is a “martyr culture”, or whether adjuncts are genuinely “oppressed”. Both are recovering academics who’ve gone on to start different businesses on the basis of their experience and expertise, and both offer the advice that “it’s OK to quit”. Both are active in commenting on the state of higher education in the US.

The exchange also pulled in Cedar ReinerLee SkallerupMelonie Fullick and Vanessa Vaile of the New Faculty Majority. I’m sure Jonathan Rees was in there at one point. The gist is this: despite the fact that many academics with tenure are lobbying hard to improve the working conditions of their untenured colleagues, some are also wondering how to ask: what if it would be better for you to walk away?

The answers are consistent, and sad.  Here’s my observation from conversations with casually hired colleagues in Australia. They’re accepting long-term but perversely insecure work on the off-career track for a mix of three reasons: they’re asked to stay, and this feels good (especially at times when PhD progress doesn’t); they’re calculating that their commitment will somehow pay out in the end; and they feel that there’s nowhere else to go in the local job market (this is especially tough for casual academics supporting families and dependent children).

Does their situation amount to exploitation, abuse of trust, or codependency? Amanda Krauss’ tough love position is that “people with choice need to stop feeding themselves into an exploitative system”; Cedar Reiner takes a different view: “how do we choose not to do what we love?” I’m not sure what I think, but I do know that every time I’ve found myself justifying something in terms like these, the situation I’ve been in hasn’t really been all that healthy for me.

But how do you judge, in the middle of the push-pull self-esteem mess you find yourself in, whether or not things might really be about to get better? Here’s a test casuals might like to apply. Does the institution asking you to come back have a strategic planning document in which it sets out its institutional aspirations for doing things well and enhancing its reputation, and does this include a clear plan for the development and career management of its academic and professional staff?  That’s not the question, though. This is: does this same strategic planning document, which will have gone through multiple working groups and committees and consultation processes and been signed off at a high level, also explain how it intends to support, develop and respect your professionalism as a seasonally hired academic worker?

If it doesn’t, then you can make your decision to stay, go, or try to achieve a better deal on an informed basis, because now you know one thing (and so do your tenured allies): at the highest level, where resourcing decisions are aligned to the institutional strategic plan, they’re just not that into you.

That’s the part that it will help us all to change.

Is it time?

A few weeks ago, Professor Frank Larkin reported for the L H Martin institute that staff-student ratios in Australian higher education are a bit worse than are commonly claimed.

What makes this sensitive is the government’s ambitious target of 40% of 25-34 year olds being degree qualified by 2020. There’s some debate about the viability of this target, and the details are vague on exactly how this will raise national productivity unless we’re really prescriptive on what those undergraduates study, and what they go on to do. But for the time being, this is the cunning plan to keep Australia economically fabulous, and its success depends on Australian families believing in the value of supporting their adult children for a further three or four years while they struggle up the final stretch of the education mountain, acquiring a hefty personal debt as they go.

The complicated strain this places on families is significant, given that so many Australian undergraduates live at home, while their friends start working, or travelling, and generally getting on with their future lives. University students often talk about feeling stuck in a failure-to-launch scenario, going through the motions of something that feels too much like high school, while balancing part-time, seasonal, insecure employment with the social constraints of life at home with the parents.

As families are right now in the process of deciding whether to not to go through with this, the risk is that public debate over staff-student ratios is like the ongoing PR crisis about unflued gas heaters in school classrooms: even if your children and their teachers aren’t personally exposed to this problem, repeated discussion of it does wear out your confidence in the overall system. Primary school? Isn’t that where the heaters make everyone sick? University? Isn’t that where they’re all sitting on the floor and no one knows their name?

This seems to be why there’s been a strong counter attack this week, in the form of a background briefing paper issued by the Group of Eight.

What’s the real difference of opinion? Professor Larkin’s position is that the dramatic increase in student numbers since 2000 hasn’t been covered by an increase in permanent academic positions, but rather by a diversion to research-based appointments matched with a supplementary hiring of casual teachers. According to his altered formula, staff-student ratios are now at 1:34.1 across the sector, and the assumption is that the quality of the undergraduate experience is therefore also declining.

The G08 position is, more or less, “Oh no it’s not.”

Larkins asserted that universities have been pursuing their own research interests above all else and students are being short-changed as a consequence. He alleged that universities have been reclassifying academic staff in order to game assessments of research quality. He claimed that “the coursework student to T&R + TO staff ratio was concerningly high at 34:1 in 2010”.

The available evidence does not support his claims.

At 16 pages of charts and graphs, you can see how this could drag on.  In terms of reassuring the primary audience who might have been fooled into believing Australian undergraduate education is going to hell in a handbasket, the Go8 paper is at particular pains to point out that if there has been a tiny shift towards research only (RO) positions, matched by a really minuscule increase in casualisation to take up the teaching shortfall, then this is because a) research is very difficult and b) there’s more research being done, especially by G08 universities who win all the grants and c) there’s more emphasis being placed on research by rankings, and altogether, this may result in

the offer of RO appointments [as] a mechanism for attracting and retaining academic talent in the increasingly competitive environment, even though it may not align with the raison d’être of a university.

Well, no kidding.

The second part of the PR struggle over whether or not Australian universities are adequately staffed is casualisation. The Go8 euphemise this as “university staffing flexibility in times of intensifying competition”, and find it to be at surprisingly low levels, a fact they attribute to stroppy unions. Using a different formula, they find the overall staff-student ratio to be 1:16.8 in the G08 and 1:24.4 out in the wildzone where the rest of us work.

The confusion for those of us trying to figure out which of these sets of numbers is right is that university calculations don’t count “actual casuals” (this is the strangely poignant technical term) as actual people, but as fractions of imaginary full-time staff positions. Both teaching load and teaching labour in higher education involve smallish chunks of discrete human activity: a student sitting in a lecture here is a fraction of the nominal time allocated to a class which is a fraction of that student’s imaginary full-time student life; a teacher grading papers for a different class over there is also a nominal fraction of something.

All these bits and pieces are reaggregated into full-time equivalence in order to be able to tallied against each other, and it’s on this basis that we reassemble the founding myth of full-time students taught by full-time staff. But in reality, students are radically economising on the time it takes to be taught (and lecture attendance is the blunt measure of this), and both permanent and casual academics are volunteering more and more of their own time to compensate for this. So the myth of full time anything doesn’t seem like a solid starting point.

However, beyond the practical consequences of casualisation for institutions, and even beyond the impact on individuals whose personal and professional lives are being bonsaied by this strategy, there’s another economic factor that doesn’t get the consideration it deserves.

Our growing contingent workforce includes those who represent the apex of government investment in education. They are in every other respect the stellar success stories of higher education retention, having stuck with us all the way up to PhD level. Now they’re mostly not living at home (although some are), but they’re trying to raise families of their own, and the more teaching they do to help universities maintain their flexibility “in times of intensifying competition”, the worse their real career prospects become.

So while we’re making charts, perhaps we could apply some scrutiny to the fact that higher education’s current structural dependence on flexibility is confining many of its own most successful research trained alumni to the prospect of long-term job precarity as casual teachers—or to costly retraining for a whole other career. This seems like the exemplary case of a bad return on investment for all concerned.

(The posts that this week that have got me thinking about all this come from Dean Dad on course overloads, Ferdinand von Prondzynski on the business principles of retention and attraction, Lee Skallerup on the need to take action for adjunct colleagues, Jonathan Rees who is as worried as anyone about the structural problems of the academic labor market, and Stephen Matchett on the Go8’s dispute with Larkin’s report. But there are now plenty of others calling for advocacy on this matter, including the excellent New Faculty Majority.  I think, to use an Australian phrase, it’s time.)