Truth is forever twinned as having an incidence and carrying an import.  Even sciences like medicine and chemistry so physically concrete carry significance for the soul. … Microscopes become tragic in what they may reveal.

(Kenneth Cragg, The Order of the Wounded Hands, 2006)

Well, here’s something concrete that has import for the soul.  Higher education systems around the world have become dependent on the availability of a large pool of cheap labour who are prepared to teach students for a fraction of the cost of salaried and tenured employees.

The recent report by the Grattan Institute on the state of things in Australian higher education, for example, suggests that “Half or more of the academics students encounter may not have permanent academic jobs”—although it does then conclude a bit tactlessly that “Australia does not have a crisis in higher education.”

But the details of this not-crisis are now demanding to be seen. The bitterness, defensiveness and scorn, for example, in the showdown between tenured and untenured academics in the comments to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on tenure-related depression are really startling.  A gulf is opening up between those who accept that there’s an unfixable structural dependency that’s closely tied to the other problems facing higher education in relation to tuition fees, infrastructure costs, toxic student debt, and the serious risk of declining demand for college level education—and those who don’t.

There are tenured and adjunct academics on both sides of this divide. There are those with tenure who are turning two blind eyes to the fact that we work in institutions that wouldn’t be open for business at all if our adjunct colleagues didn’t show up.  It’s hourly-paid labour that holds open the door to our salaried careers; we really didn’t get here all by ourselves, even if it was hard to get here.

One of this reasons why the fantasy of deserving status can be sustained is that managers are often secretive about their budgets; and in return, many of their top-tier employees can trundle along in a state of ignorance about how the whole thing is financed, at least until they take on an administrative and staff hiring role.  (The other reason is role vanity, and we should just give that up.)

But this innocence is the same reason why people can lobby seriously for tenure track opportunities for all adjuncts. It’s an important goal, just an impossible one.  The tough fact is that we can’t afford the staff that we need to teach the students we just recruited. How we got here is anyone’s guess, but here is where we are.

Then there are those who believe the problem is very serious, but know it can’t readily be fixed without taking the whole system offline and trying to come up with a better one. Many scholars in positions of responsibility are now campaigning to fix the most damaging elements of the situation. Michael Berube, for example, is the current president of the MLA, and attended the recent summit on adjunct issues held by the New Faculty Majority in Washington (if you missed this really inspiring event, it was covered by an excellent social media team, and #newfac12 will take you to links).*

Like other high profile bloggers, he has written up the event; he also has a position of significance in the academy, and his support is important. Here’s his summary of the American version of the problem, the scale of which is really sobering:

Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities. Many of them are working at or under the poverty line, without health insurance; they have no academic freedom worthy of the name, because they can be fired at will; and, when fired, many remain ineligible for unemployment benefits …

The problem that realists face is this: to try to ameliorate this bad situation can look like a half-measure at best, and collusion at worst. Can any version of the adjunct career can be reconstructed as a professionally rewarding path, and one that is not sealed off from the tenure track? Trying to improve the status of work that has no prospects, no rank, and no resources is a really tough call, and it’s made worse by the fact that the existence of this second-tier of employment is actively covered up in university marketing.

Compare this to edtech, another polarising feature of the higher education landscape. You can at least find people who will put a positive spin on edtech, and on the ways in which it offers transformative learning experiences that are Open, Free, Easy and Amazing (what happened to OpenClass, by the way?). So even if you suspect that your institution is interested in an LMS with all the user-friendliness of an aircraft carrier because somewhere down the line it will save them from the cost of a new building, at least edtech has its advocates, and there’s something to debate. And there’s sure to be a photo of a student with a laptop in your marketing literature.

By contrast, there is nothing whatsoever said in public about the merits of adjunctification. It doesn’t feature in university marketing at all.  And as universities are currently prepared to promote the way the grass grows on their campuses, you can be sure that this silence from marketing is pretty significant. There is no good news story here.

So it’s about time each of us with tenure stops avoiding what the microscope will reveal. We should know the details that marketing prefers not to promote: the tenure-to-adjunct ratio in our own Faculties, schools and departments, or the calculations used to pay our colleagues. How long is an adjunct hour? (Most will tell you that in Australia it’s currently three times as long as the normal ticking-clock hour, because of the other elements bundled in with the contact hours, including preparation and consultation, and some marking). What kind of resources are available, including professional development? Are our hourly paid colleagues fairly represented and respected in all the committee and decision-making processes that affect their working lives? And what support can we offer, in practical ways, to create better professional opportunities if this is what they’re seeking?

And if we’re told that it’s not our business, then we should ask again.  Because we’re not in this anywhere near equitably, but we are in it together–even in Australia, where there is no crisis, if they don’t show up, we can’t manage on our own.

*If you’re an hourly paid academic and want to contribute to a crowdsourced document on working conditions in Australia, a model is Josh Boldt’s blog post and associated Google doc where US adjuncts are collecting data on their pay and conditions. It’s truly astonishing how little is known about this.

8 Responses

  • A strong post. A pragmatic approach to dealing with this inequity is clearly needed. Just be cautious in following the route we did in Ireland where, in transposing an EU Directive, designed to give a measure of protection to part time employees, into national law we have ended up in a sitiuation where even research students who do a few hours teaching can end up with contracts of indefinite duration and higher education institutions find there are four or five front dors into their institutions but no exits.

  • Very important post, and compelling call for facing truths. It’s interesting to note that for-profits, and most public online programs, have done away with the caste system, but they are left with all adjuncts / contingents. But in my experience, these adjuncts often have quite a bit more control of their working environment than their counterparts in traditional higher ed. Do you see these alternative models have any real impact on the adjunct situation overall?

    • VanessaVaile

      Definitely not the case with online for-profits in the US.

  • These two key risks operate on each other a bit. Attaching long-term entitlement to short-term fractional positions will certainly make institutions much more conservative about hiring in the first place. Institutions do need a degree of flexibility because we can’t regulate or even really predict student demand, we really have to try to respond quickly to whatever shows up. So the alternative is to go the other way and support the whole system with short-term hiring, turning higher education into a seasonal industry like fruitpicking. It’s the terrible prospect (and it’s already the reality for the new faculty majority), but I think Phil’s right that when the two-tier system is removed, there’s a much stronger culture of collaborative advocacy on questions of hiring, pay and working environment. I have worked in university teaching environments entirely staffed by casually hired tutors, and for really obvious reasons they were the most effective at organising dissent. By contrast, adjuncts working on the fringes of the tenured community are powerfully made aware of their marginal status and often isolated voices.

    It’s the role of tenured academics in going along with all of this that’s really starting to bother me. What message are we sending, that this is OK with us?

  • I was an hourly-paid lecturer for 5 years, often with a teaching workload greater than my contracted colleagues. I was regularly unpaid for 6 months in a row (which is still happening in this institution), and taught in 6 different departments because I was desperate and available – not because I had any expertise. I got away with it because I never let on, and I have a fairly active brain, but other colleagues who do let students know their status are treated with derision by some students, who see them as cheap labour or as people not good enough to get a full time job. Now I’m contracted – in the 6th year of year-long contracts…

    Some of my hourly-paid colleagues are far better than I am: one has a book and 6 papers out in the last 2 year and can’t get a job: she works at three universities spread across the country. Her partner and sister are in similar positions, because universities are far keener to hire on a cheap/disposable basis. There are 200 applications for most jobs in my field, all with PhDs and often a book, so it’s a buyer’s market. The universities have no long-term vision: they don’t recognise the loss on their investment made by pumping out PhDs with no hope of proper employment.

    This is part of what Ritzer called the McDonaldisation of universities. Hourly-paid lecturers seem like a smart short-cut, but they ruin things for students, or themselves. Either they’re strict about the effort they put in, or they do all the pastoral stuff – office hours, chatting to students after class, extra advice, extra preparation, accepting disproportionate amounts of marking – for free. They’re rarely union members and have very little protection when things go wrong. They’re under pressure to make management happy (high grade averages etc) because they need the work. They lack security and pension arrangements.

    It’s a horrible life. Even the most dedicated hourly-paid lecturer – and I was – gets worn out and envious of employed colleagues. Just like there’s an underclass of universities doing a lot of the heavy lifting, there’s an underclass of teachers who aren’t appreciated, nurtured or given due prominence.

  • VanessaVaile

    Too early to tell, but perhaps the clear shift of energies, increased determination is related to tenured / non-tenured ratio. Could it have reached or be reaching a tipping point that makes a “stronger culture of collaborative advocacy” increasingly possible? Will we cross that line before the edtech tsunami?

    FYI ~ Josh is also collecting international entries on The Adjunct Project GoogleDoc too, so send them on

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