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CASA: the house that casualisation built

Posted 26 June 2014 by Paul Clifton (Uni Casual)

US adjunct staff organising inspires Australian academic casual activists

Early in 2014, Kate Bowles and Karina Luzia formed CASA (Casual, Adjunct, Sessional staff and Allies in Australian Higher Education). They share here with Advocate how and why they’re building CASA.

We’re hearing quite a bit at the moment about US higher education as a model for deregulation in Australia. We look at their leafy college towns and ivy-covered campuses, their deep philanthropic pockets, their Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism, their MOOCs and, above all, their higher education rankings, and ask: why can’t we have what they’re having?  There are a couple of reasons why Australia should think twice about following America’s lead. One is the $1.3 trillion owed by Americans in student loans, second only to home mortgages. The other is the state of the academic profession.

In its annual report on the staffing of American higher education, Here’s the News: Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession 2012-2013, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported that only 24% of faculty were employed in continuing positions, either tenured or on the tenure track. This leaves three-quarters of America’s faculty in different kinds of insecure employment: part-time and full-time untenured, or working as graduate student employees or teaching assistants.

While full-time tenure and tenure track employment have increased 23% since 1975, the expansion of the American higher education system over the last forty years has been carried on the shoulders of the rest: part-time faculty have increased by 286%, full-time faculty without tenure by 259%, and graduate student employees by 123% (AAUP, Losing Focus: Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession 2013-2014).  It’s hard to avoid the impression that the creation of this large adjunct workforce is the studied consequence of the overproduction of PhDs across the disciplines, especially in the Humanities.

This is the background to the adjunct activism that is now such a visible part of academic social media. Adjunct bloggers are backed up by higher education outlets like Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, who have recruited adjunct columnists, and given prominent coverage to adjunct issues. Now American adjuncts are working nationally to share data on their wages, conditions, and on unionisation campaigns at specific campuses.

Margaret Mary’s tragic story

This has triggered sympathetic mainstream media attention to the realities of college staffing, particularly in high profile cases where adjunct working conditions and human interest collide. In August 2013, an 83-year-old adjunct French professor at Duquesne University, Margaret Mary Votjko, died in apparent poverty shortly after being told she would not be offered any further work; in May 2014, homeless adjunct Mary-Faith Cerasoli began a hunger strike to draw attention to college professors working without healthcare, depending on food stamps, and not just holding office hours in their cars, but living in them too.

Adjuncts took to Twitter and Facebook with protest campaigns: #IamMaryMargaret and #IamMaryFaith. Testy exchanges (#notyouradjunctsidekick) between adjuncts and tenured faculty online exposed the gulf of privilege between those with careers, offices and research support, and the ‘freeway flyers’ making up hours of work across institutions, hoping not to get sick, and trying to stay competitive in research on their own time.

Salon des Refusés?

Earlier this year, we were both watching this painful dispute from the sidelines of global academic Twitter, wondering why Australian casual and sessional academics had a less visibly organised presence. At the same moment, we both noticed that yet another major sector conference was canvassing the future of our system without admitting to its dependency on university teachers hired by the semester and paid by the hour.

‘Wouldn’t it be great to mobilise a shadow Twitter conference for/by casuals, following the UA schedule? Salon des Refusés.’

‘I’m in.  Those session names alone are crying out for some kind of (gentle ‘non-violent’) takedown.’

So that’s how we were irritated into CASA, by fantasising about an Australian version of the first ever Modern Language Association (MLA) SubConference elbowed its way to the side of the mighty MLA conference this year, bringing adjuncts together to share experiences and information on the academic career realities the MLA chooses to overlook.  To us it seemed that our own sector leaders similarly wanted to hear from students, IT vendors, MOOC spruikers and librarians, before they would invite input from their sessional staff colleagues.

We’ve both been circling this issue for a while. Kate had been writing online about casualisation and other academic work issues in her Music for Deckchairs blog. Karina was fresh from involvement in an Office for Learning and Teaching project on sessional staff, and prior to that, had worked for eight years as a casual-sessional academic in teaching and research, across universities, faculties and centres.

Both of us are interested in understanding the affective dimension to casual work: the practices of belonging, protest, resilience and place-making by those pushed to the margins of their workplaces. So we decided to go beyond online snarking about an executive conference, to create instead a new space for a more difficult conversation about change coming from below.

Mia casa é sua casa

CASA became an opportunity to invite academic workers without job security into a safe and neutral platform, to speak candidly about the realities of their working lives and put forward ideas for change, without feeling that they were being asked yet again to fix up the problems of a broken system in their own, uncompensated time.

Five months later, we have been joined by a small community of writers and subscribers, and we’ve received warm support and encouragement at many levels. Group blogging is something Australians do well. It’s been a bit like barn-raising, as we’ve worked together to put up the frame for an online open house for casuals, adjuncts, sessionals and their allies.

Our first aim was to offer a platform to anyone who wanted to write about their experience of working casually, so that these stories would be valued at the level of the individual, and not absorbed into data. Secondly, we wanted to make it harder for senior decision-makers in the future to airbrush casualisation from their agendas, or to treat it only as a marginal reporting issue – and in so doing, to fail completely to support the wellbeing of their casual staff.

We also wanted to learn more about how what’s happening in Australia connects to the experience of adjuncts in the US and Canada, and fractional or hourly-paid staff in the UK. We’ve been working with the organisers of the weekly US #AdjunctChat on Twitter to expand this into a more international discussion, and we’ve been joined by the Canadian Association of Contingent Academic Workers and the UCU Anti-Casualisation committee from the UK.

And finally, we wanted to invite a more inclusive conversation about casualisation data, taking a critical look at the evidence the sector itself uses. We know that casual staff in universities don’t see internal data, and don’t attend the meetings where this data is discussed. Many also don’t know where to begin looking for information on their work entitlements and conditions, despite the best efforts of local NTEU branches. This makes it hard to counter arguments about casualisation as necessary, unexceptional and fair.

Casual generalisations

As it happens, the full-time equivalent (FTE) formula for calculating ‘actual casuals’ teaching is an exercise in frustration that only serves to disguise both the actual numbers of individuals working casually across many roles, and the actual proportion of undergraduate teaching covered by sessional staff.  This is what’s made it possible for peak bodies in our sector to dismiss casual academic work as an inconsequential or subsidiary career phase, rather than an essential part of the structure of university staffing or the substance of an individual’s academic career.

So we’ve heard a lot about portfolio professionals: people dedicated to careers elsewhere and either looking to make some pocket money, or to dabble in university teaching as some kind of hobby. We’ve also heard that casuals focused on an academic career are simply engaging in a teaching apprenticeship as part of a well-rounded PhD, to improve their chances of full-time work later. And we’ve heard that casuals don’t (or shouldn’t) care about money because they teach for satisfaction and for the valuable experience—otherwise, why would they show up?

These generalisations aren’t evidence-based. They’re used to gloss over the reality that people end up taking on casual university work for all sorts of reasons, and experience it in many different ways.

At CASA, we don’t assume anything except that casualisation is a serious factor in the operation of Australian universities, and we don’t know enough about it. Casual and sessional staff are the face of university teaching; casual and fixed-term researchers have made significant contributions to Australian research and development. University administration and service divisions are propped up by casuals. And they’re all doing it backwards in heels, while being ignored or marginalised or denied resources to do their jobs to the best of their ability. 

Join us!

We think it’s time to ask how this situation can change. If you’d like to join us, come on over to CASA and subscribe, or email us at [email protected] if you’d like to suggest topics we should cover, and especially if you’d like to write about your experience. Everyone is welcome!

Kate Bowles, University of Wollongong, @KateMfD


(8 MB) - PDF

Advocate, June 2014


  1. Sal said on 11:11 Tuesday 8 Jul, 2014

    [ +1 ] My university recently conducted an "engagement survey" of staff. They had to drum up interest, and they offered a prize to the work unit that had the highest response. After lots of reminders and cajoling they managed to get what they considered a great response -- but only by "excluding sessional staff". That pretty much says it all. Sessional staff were neither engaged nor valued, and they could just be (appropriately) excluded at the stroke of a pen because they dragged the response rates for engagement down. Gave me a warm fuzzy glow of appreciation for the institution's values ...

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