Over the holiday period there’s been a flare-up among US higher education bloggers, that began with important questions about the miserable process of tenure-line job searches conducted at big annual conferences (do candidates really end up sitting on the bed in front of the search committee? Good Lord), and jumped from there to whether those currently tenured are doing enough to change the system that gives them their privileges. Understandably, tenured US bloggers wrote back, most substantively agreeing that university work is broken, and pointing out some of the reasons other than tenured privilege that higher education can’t afford to pay its staffing bills properly.
For those of us in other places, where neither hiring nor tenure work in the same way, it’s been like visiting someone else’s family for Christmas dinner and watching them fight. Every old thing gets raked up. Seething alliances form. Insults are defensively reexplained and stuff gets overstated. Once there’s a crowd, reactive escalation becomes its own self-sustaining energy. So then tone-policing becomes a thing, a penalty dive, in much the same way that “political correctness” was used by Australian conservatives in the 1990s: claiming to be silenced in order to silence others back.
Something that Australians would recognise is at work here: the art and tactic of sledging (which has nothing to do with snow). Sledging isn’t just there to unsettle your opponent, but to build solidarity among the team dishing it out. Sledging is a public test of team loyalty and commitment to the cause. Whose side are you on anyway? Whenever critics of sledging say that that it’s gone too far and is tipping into bullying, and indeed when it does evident harm to some of those on the receiving end, sledgers amp it up a bit while disavowing it in the same neat move. It’s just a game, and off the pitch we’re all mates.
Social media sledging in the current climate is tangling with the ways that universities (and governments) are mobilising to minimise critique from higher education workers, by widening the definition of inappropriate speech online to include anything that brings the institution or its brand into disrepute. And to this powerful audience, some of the obvious strategies for breaking up this brawl while clawing back more money from university staffing are already on hand. So if we want to get beyond sledging and make workplaces worth applying to, really we need to try to think about these other options and familiarise ourselves with what they might mean.
First: outsourcing. Universities are generalist institutions made up of lots of little divisions that do different things, and academics are often not aware how many of these are already outsourced to specialist providers. We could be better at sharing administrative services; even research time is able to be lent so that cross-institutional teams can function. But in teaching, the idea of outsourcing was hushed until MOOCs blew it out of a big trumpet. (The exception is LMS contracts; and even then few academics get to find out much about the vendors that they’re partnered with, because that partnership is sequestered within a specialist bit of the institution, and sometimes actively covered up with in-house support.)
So academic work itself remains the least outsourced part of the institution’s activity, and this could change. Public universities could run on outsourced online labour quite straightforwardly—other major corporations do, as do MOOCs, and many private education providers. Casualisation itself is already both outsourcing and sharing, but it’s still relatively costly compared to how cheap it could be if it was unbundled and the cheaper bits put out to tender. Of course this work then wouldn’t go to those who are currently trying to find local employment in higher education, because there will always be cheaper sources of piecework labour in other states or other countries, just as there are in other industries. So this wouldn’t create more just employment, but it would save money.
The second option is potentially more attractive to people who want to work in higher education: remove tenure and make universities like other sectors, where security of employment is based on continuation of demand for what you do, matched to your continually tested capacity to do it better than the next person. This is exactly what life on the open market is like for car workers, basketballers, miners, IT workers, business professionals and farmers, not to mention journalists, artists, and people who make cricket caps. Demand for what you do can change, and someone younger, fitter, taller or cheaper than you can offer a better deal to your employer.
So if you’re sitting on a CV that’s more impressive than someone currently in a tenured position, maybe this would work in your favour. And maybe the younger, fitter, taller, cheaper person would never come along to replace you either.
As it happens, this one’s also already here, because the underlying bargain also favours the employer. Many Australian universities have in their three year contract with their workforce the capacity to redeploy or retrench academics if the discipline market shifts, or technology makes a difference in very unexplained ways, and it’s no longer in the business interests of the organisation to commit to the expense of someone’s permanent salary. This is what makes the culture of continuous departmental restructure so serious. While universities shuffle their salary commitments around the disciplines to optimise their ranking performance, academics now also need to imagine remixing their expertise quickly to be something else if that’s the way the wind blows—which is to say that expertise itself has already been redefined as a barrier to flexibility.
It’s a high risk strategy for both employers and elite performers, who are bought in at the expense of an international search, and then bought out of governance and/or teaching so that they can bring in research funding. But if demand trends away from them, then they can be difficult to redeploy, because it turns out that universities are within rights to argue that a senior academic can’t simply be plonked in front of first-year undergraduate students to do generalist teaching. In a very recent judgment, the Australian Fair Work Commission has decided in favour of an Australian university that:
A category E professor is a far more expensive employee for the School than a Lecturer A or B employee. The retrenchment and redundancy provisions of the Agreement are objectively intended to allow the University to address commercial imperatives arising from changed business circumstances. A practical approach to the construction of the Agreement favours a conclusion that does not oblige the University to retain that far more expensive employee to perform work that can be, and is presently, performed by significantly less expensive casual employees in the Lecturer A or B classification. [emphasis, as they say, not in the original]
This whole judgment is painful to study. At its heart is the story of three real people fighting unsuccessfully to keep the jobs they signed up for, and a union fighting alongside them; hidden behind this are all the stories of their significantly less expensive colleagues whose terrible working conditions have become the very low-lying marker in the struggle for fair work in sustainable universities, and whose situation could yet get worse under MOOC-driven disruption and tech-supported unbundling of work.
The judgment is clear on the climate for thinking about security of academic employment in Australia; and shows how little impact we have had on assumptions about the time it takes to teach conscientiously, patiently or well, especially where students may be underprepared or poorly supported. It differentiates between the value of contact hours based on an individual’s salary, and by these apparently reasonable means finds it appropriate to service first-year teaching at the lowest possible cost, which is precisely how casualisation is endorsed as a strategically good response to “commercial imperatives.”
So if you still really think that people who talk about structure are avoiding the struggle for fair work and turning a blind eye to humans harmed by it, or that it’s possible to separate the struggles of the academic precariat from the management of those on salary, then read this judgment closely. Because this is the court of opinion where real power is at work, and where the structure is already being redesigned.
Big thanks to Stephen Matchett (@SRMatchett) for daily higher education reporting in Australia. His Campus Morning Mail is where I first read about the judgment discussed here.