I’m not really one for live blogging, but I’m up late following the UK Guardian’s weekly online live chat, just concluded, on the subject of academic casualisation—not least for the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Rees in action. We’re all still falling short of figuring out exactly how edtech, university marketing and casualisation add up to the state that we’re in, but he’s on the case.
I wanted to find the conversation more encouraging, but it’s hard to ask a group of individual academics to solve systemic and intentional business strategies like this one, when their own choices are limited in practice to getting in, getting out or cheering up. The people with the capacity to make a real difference are mostly absent from these discussions: the Vice Chancellors and their management teams. Universities are run by design on a mix of casualisation and volunteerism—this is not an accident or an aberration, and it’s not temporary. We all depend on it, in the worst possible way.
And as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out on Twitter, it’s not just academics who are being asked to settle for this. Our professional and administrative colleagues are also being buffeted around by short-term hiring and firing as higher education institutions cope with a rapidly changing market for full-term degrees.
Staffing flexibility makes business sense in difficult times; that’s exactly what the fast-food industry tells us. But we’re not doing a great job of limiting the social and personal harm that it causes, nor are we doing anywhere near enough to counsel those with aspirations to work in universities about the business model that determines their chances. It’s heartbreaking to read of casual academics who are working well below the UK minimum wage, once their real hours are calculated; or the highly qualified early career researchers who have done all the right things and can see nothing up ahead but bits and pieces of short-term work, at a time when many were hoping to start families. As one wrote:
I hate the uncertainty of short term contracts and most of all, I’m just so TIRED. I’ve realised that HE’s heart is in the wrong place. After 10 years of training I really don’t know if I want to stay in academia. Four of my closest friends – all in their early 30s with PhDs from Russell Group universities (if you think that matters) – are, like me, seriously considering leaving. Where is this going to go when we are all so broken?
And that’s the thing: when any system is broken, it breaks the people who are trying to make their way within it. There’s a ton of research on the consequences of long-term job precarity in terms of mental health and social wellbeing. Across all kinds of jobs and professions, casual employment is recognised as having negative impact on individuals, their families, and their communities. This is particularly significant to regional colleges and universities, where these institutions may be the only local employers for graduate professionals. The result isn’t good for anyone—it really can’t help to have universities staffed by so many people who wish they could find something more sustainable and less demoralising to do.
I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s republished commencement speech from last month, on risk, failure and rescue:
We talk a lot about “risk management”—a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure. When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all.
Gawande’s point is that if while risk is essential to change, we also need to be ready to act decisively when we can see that something is wrong: “The sooner you’re able to see clearly that your best hopes and intentions have gone awry, the better. You have more room to pivot and adjust. You have more of a chance to rescue.”
In terms of casualisation, this suggests that the first step towards rescue would be to achieve agreement that the situation is wrong in a serious way. This one should be fairly easy, as there’s really no shortage of people wanting to list the deficiences of higher education at the moment. But when you plough through all the opinion on what we’re doing wrong, it seems as though very few of our critics mind all that much about our HR issues. Nope, what we urgently need to reform is that we’re still giving delivering lectures in actual lecture theatres, failing to keep up with the Facebook generation, or insisting on offering our own first year Chemistry courses when we could get one off the shelf from an elite US institution in the new global higher education online Kwik-E-Mart.
Well, strike me down but I think the emphasis on achieving reform through more exciting use of technology is misplaced. What we’re actually doing wrong is at the other end of the spreadsheet where it’s really starting to look as though we’re recruiting PhD students to service our chronic dependency on casual teachers. I really hate thinking that this is deliberate, but given that we know exactly how few real academic jobs become available every year, we have to ask: why else are we so keen to produce such a surplus of people who are qualified to fill them?