Who’d be an academic?

| May 8, 2024

It was a cold June morning when the message came through. A Zoom call with the Dean, Head of School and HR at 9.30am to discuss the new organisational chart.

We were three months into the COVID-19 pandemic and the many challenges of transferring all teaching content online had just wrapped up.

But here I was — one of the few female professors on a regional campus, at the height of my academic game with a new book out, a string of excellent teaching evaluations, boundless enthusiasm and co-leading an emerging research centre — being told there was no place on the chart for me.

Instead I was part of a sobering statistic: one of up to 27,000 university staff across Australia to lose their job in the first year of the pandemic, supposedly necessary as a result of COVID.

Like the rest of the country, this university and the system were reeling from the shock of the pandemic.

It was also, of course, a personal shock, but not completely unexpected as the profession I had entered many years before had transformed into something unrecognisable.

Six months earlier as I fronted my annual performance review and carefully noted my many achievements, my Head of School barely glanced at the document before extolling my energy and asking if I had considered retirement.

It was one of those many moments where remarkable performance was met by silence or exhortations to do more: more successful grants, more publications, more teaching initiatives; or better still, a departure to make way for someone younger. Or cheaper. A casual.

For that has been one of the major changes across the past few decades.

From a university system which had offered secure employment which was also fun and valued, increasingly there were fewer and fewer tenured positions and more and more sessional staff.

Indeed it is estimated that at least 50 percent of all undergraduate teaching is now done by casuals.

From 1990 to 2011 there had been an increase in casualisation of 250 percent compared to a 55 percent increase in non-casual academic employment.

There have been many other changes too, including increasing competition and alliances across the sector, a proliferation of managers, rampant quantification of all aspects of what was increasingly viewed as a business and, underlying it all, a long-term reduction in government funding.

One of the many consequences of these changes was a sense of ongoing crisis, which, along with the embrace of managerialism, produced a rolling series of restructures all in the name of greater efficiency, cost savings, market edge, matching supply to demand and continuous improvement.

But now there was a real crisis.

During the pandemic, universities which for years had had healthy balance sheets, were undoubtedly hit by the closure of international borders and the refusal to extend the JobKeeper wage subsidy to the sector.

The response was to sack very large numbers of staff, estimated as up to 27,000 jobs in the first year of the pandemic alone.

Two years in, this translated into a 10 percent cut across the system — disproportionate to the overall financial loss of around five percent.

These crises have had significant impacts on staff.

There had been a growing sense of employment insecurity — tenured staff were vulnerable, but even more so if you were on a short-term contract or sessional.

Numerous Fair Work cases have proven that many of these staff are not paid for the work that they do. There is rampant wage theft and exploitation of university workers, tenured or not.

The system increasingly relied on the good will of all academics to work unpaid overtime to keep it running. Six to seven day weeks were common and still are.

There was also a growing sense of the student as client with the rights and perspective of a customer rather than a trainee scholar or professional. The pressure was therefore on to give quality if unpaid feedback and elevated marks, if only to placate the newly empowered consumer of our educational service.

In addition to the ever-growing teaching, technological and administrative demands, most academics were expected to do research.

Usually valued over all other activities, there is an expectation to generate income.

But with the success rates of the holy grail of such grants — those awarded by the Australian Research Council — running at 20 to 40 percent it means that failure is a more likely outcome.

There are also other sources of research funds — government, community, industry — with topics shaped by their needs rather than those of a discipline or sense of social responsibility.

The imperative becomes to get the money, to shape projects to meet the needs of funders, a prospect that lends itself to intellectual and moral compromises.

The simple solution to make universities better workplaces is not just more government money — though that would help — but far more transparency about how it is managed.

As a long-term member of the Academic Board I was repeatedly told that questions around budgeting were “operational” and therefore the preserve of management.

Not only could such bodies be directly elected but they could have real management oversight and be able to raise questions around restructuring, staffing and budgeting as well as teaching quality.

The issue of casualisation is an industrial one — involving wage theft, underpayment, and insecurity — which could be addressed via new agreements that set limits on flexibility, fair payment and guarantee ongoing employment and academic freedom.

The idea of academic freedom itself would benefit from being strengthened, not just to teach and research what years of professional training has distilled as important, but to include guarantees of employment continuity and respect that go well beyond the soft recommendations within current enterprise bargaining agreements.

The new army of university managers would also benefit from real education in the morality and integrity of academic work and the social — rather than just the financial and narrowly educational role — of universities.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.