At this time of year, many of us are dreaming of lying on a quiet beach under a palm tree … . Instead, we are more likely to be watching the sun shine down from behind the office window, while staring obsessively at our computer screens and becoming consumed by our overflowing inboxes.

It seems that Australia isn’t the laidback nation it’s perceived to be.

Aussies: reluctant to take annual leave, Big Fish Global Consulting Group, back in 2012

Summertime in Australia, and the sharks are tweeting.

When I first came here in the mid 1990s, Australian universities still operated like the television industry in the expectation that everyone went on holiday for the whole of January. Academics didn’t need to book leave; under the terms of a “deeming provision” in the employment agreement, it could be taken for granted that we were all at the beach because that’s what January means in Australian culture. So the legal fiction of annual leave could be maintained without much admin overhead, while the actual practice of leaving work and doing something else with your time was gradually being washed out to sea by sector-wide changes to the way universities operated in the summer period.

Realistically academics have always used January to write, setting up exactly the conditions for other kinds of work bleeding into their personal time. But now there are more and more administrative deadlines, including those related to grant-getting and grant-acquitting, that require a more routine kind of work through January. It’s also peak hunting season for potential undergraduates who have better or worse than expected high school results.  And the ferris wheels of shared governance all started to turn at the beginning of the month, even if some academics might still be choosing to protect themselves from knowing how any of these work.

So Australian universities now recognise that if they need to stay open for business all year, then the deeming provision that writes everyone’s leave off in January is fraudulent to the point of risk. Even though some of the cultural expectations about January still apply, the practical change is that academics now get to apply for annual leave, which means that someone has to approve it, and then the whole system spends the rest of the year auditing, worrying and auto-generating emails about the fact that what we have here is a burned-out profession sitting on a huge stockpile of untaken time away from work.

To this extent, despite the popular caricature that we barely show up at all, academics turn out to be pretty much the same as any other salaried workers in a churning economy, with Australia coming fifth in 2012 in a global survey on “holiday deprivation in developed nations“:

According to the survey, we are only taking fifteen of our twenty entitled annual leave days. Therefore we’re waving goodbye to a whole working weeks’ worth of holidays. As a nation, this leaves us with over 118 million days of annual leave stockpiled; or in other words: 350,000 years of holidays and $33.3 billion in wages.

Although 70% of annual leave stockpilers acknowledge that taking time off to recharge does wonders for your work/life balance, many also say that personal or work-related barriers are holding them back. Concerns regarding money, failure to plan, deliberately saving for emergencies or not being able to coordinate leave with a partner’s availability were cited as major reasons for not taking leave. A further 57% of stockpilers blame work-related barriers for their inability to take holidays, including; separation anxiety from work, lack of cover, negative reactions from employers and difficulties of being granted leave in the first place.

So there’s that. But let’s look at this another way.

Paid leave is the privilege of a minority of those who actually teach in universities. It’s part of the package of privileges that come with salaried, permanent academic employment, including sick leave, carers leave, bereavement leave, sabbaticals, paid leave for long service, superannuation, access to retention and attraction bonuses, access to research grant funding etc. But wait, there’s more: a permanent salary also underwrites your credit standing in relation to other middle-class institutions (banks, real estate), gives you a professional identity, and sustains a general ability to plan for your future. So even where it doesn’t come with healthcare, a salaried job is the golden ticket in an economy characterised by precarity, underemployment, unemployment, and the vast shadow economy of informal work.

In Australia, the compensation for being excluded from the privilege of security is a loading that nominally treats casual academics as self-managed contractors who fund their own entitlements. On paper, this looks OK. But while we still systematically underestimate how long the institution’s teaching work actually takes to get done—because the same calculations feed into the very, very sensitive matter of staff-student ratios—then we not only reduce their hourly rate, but also drag down with it the significance and real value of their compensatory loading.

There are two problems here. One is that we still base most measures of teaching work not on outputs but on the fiction of the contact hour, which is recognised as not quite belonging to the temporality of corporeal life but to some weird metonymic calculation where the hour in front of a class implies the other hours required to enable that contact hour to happen. Only the contact hour is measured in the tick of a regular clock and the others are calculated according to a piecework formula which amounts to however long a piece of string happens to be. It’s a mess, because it’s a gross effort to discipline 21st century university work, which is asynchronous, virtual, global and multitasked, in the name of 14th century scholarly practices.

The second problem is that the variables in how long teaching actually takes are among the most politically sensitive in higher education. Topicality and currency of teaching materials, building and equipment maintenance, variability in student preparedness, professional development for teachers, health and accessibility considerations—these are all topics that make higher education institutions wince because they’re in the cost planning side of the strategy. This is the bit the institution uses to try to manage the risk of volatility on the revenue side as students and families weigh up the prospect of college debt v. college premium. So institutions underinvest a little bit in all these things, and try to calculate how much they can save without introducing reputational risk, which is of course risk to revenue. That’s how both salaried and hourly paid academics end up having to contribute their own time to the enterprise, whether they’re supposed to be off the clock or off on leave, to cover this gap.

So thinking about the complexity of all this, here’s a New Year message to our colleagues in edtech.  As you’re making your 2014 to-do list, please make sure that you’re really well informed about the labour market conditions in the sector you’re promising to disrupt. We’ve had two years of listening to you about the democratisation of student access to education, and the efficacy of student management; now let’s hear your thoughts on improving the human experience of work in higher education—and not just for the handful of mostly male tenured celebrities at top-tier US institutions you’re using to promote your brand.

Because until you really understand the rapid, serious deterioration of work in higher education, your chances of achieving sustainable change, the change that you want to be part of, are nil.


Health update: Thanks so much to everyone who’s written and asked, brought meals for us, and hung out our washing. Recovery was quite tough this time because of a second general anaesthetic quickly following the first, but I’m up and about, and waiting for results from the second surgery at the end of this week, before moving to the next stage of this thing. I heard Shane Warne say yesterday that the Australian cricket team is essential to the idea of Australian culture, and I can see why he thinks that, but for me it’s Medicare. Australian public hospitals and the people who work in them are facing the same underfunding and casualisation as us, the same mad search for efficiency, but as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out to me this week, what they deal with is beyond comparison.

3 Responses

  • clapping from the peanut gallery. except for the part about the second anaesthetic and tough recovery…phewf, Kate. sending all i got in the wait, with huge hopes for best possible news and next steps.

    your post made me think about my own course that starts this week – i didn’t get a course to teach last term, in the midst of significant cuts and program shifts in my faculty – but Thursday i start a brand-new class. it has 37 people in it, compared to the 21-25 i’ve always taught in B.Ed programs. it will mean extra work and effort, for the same money…and i don’t even have a space to hold office hours. yet i’m glad to have it because…well, it’s better than nothing. this is where i’m at, mid-career, after 15yrs teaching in higher ed. and there is no space to talk about it, really, because the alternative is the faculty shuts down entirely…and in this one-institution-town, that’s pretty grim prospects. and like you say, this is NOT a case of salaried vs. hourly-paid academics…we’re all eating up our lives with this. costs and risks are not evenly distributed, but we are nonetheless all in the same boat. with the same deckchairs. 😉

    so i echo what you’re saying, though i direct my New Year msg less to colleagues in edtech and more to the venture capitalists and computer-scientists-turned-edupreneurs, whom i don’t *really* think of as edtech but who seem to be the ones selling all this disruption.

  • You’ve raised a really key question for me: what is the alternative for smaller and regional institutions? I’m also in a one-institution town, although the major universities in the state are within driving distance and both students and casual academics do this commute. The big problem we’re facing is that casualisation/adjunctification is the compromise that’s keeping institutions open at all. If this had happened overnight, there would have been a much bigger panic about it; but it happened incrementally (although not glacially) and so now we’re in a situation where a practice that evolved in a different budget climate seems only to have expanded, whereas it’s really transformed. This is the shift from transitional casualisation as part of career development to permanent, seasonal employment on the adjunct track.

    One of the things I think we can do is be outspoken about this. And yes, it’s the same boat when it sinks, even if the deckchairs are part of the furniture of privilege while it sails.

  1. Some notes on academic labour and fronts of struggle | Richard Hall's Space  January 8, 2014

    […] In two recent pieces on the attrition on and deterioration of work in Australian universities, Kate Bowles has highlighted the problems in seeking redress from inside the University as an autonomous organisation. Instead she argues for a more humane approach to the management of change and to understanding the ways in which academic work or labour is being restructured globally. Of those involved in change programmes, she notes: […]

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