‘Traditional’ academics are endangered species

Profound changes have transformed the role of the ‘traditional’ academic in Australian universities, so much so that this once typical academic might soon be numbered among the nation’s endangered species.

A ‘policy note’ released by the Group of Eight, or Go8, research-intensive universities this week says that whereas academics were once employed full-time to undertake teaching and research, these fortunates are fast disappearing.

Described as a ‘news alert’, the document titled “Changes in the composition of Australia’s higher education workforce” presents an alarming picture of increasingly casualised academic staff holding short-term positions.

As graphs in the note indicate, the main growth in academic numbers over the decade to 2012 has been in casual teaching-only and research-only staff. It says the research-only share of total academic numbers rose from 16% to 23%, with a 164% increase in the number of these appointments above senior lecturer level, and an increase of 113% at senior lecturer level.

“This may reflect government funding incentives to retain and regain researcher stars, and university staffing strategies to attract high-fliers in the research reputation race – alongside structural adaptation to government regulation of universities,” the document states.

It points to a 72% increase in teaching-only appointments at the below-lecturer level and a 21% increase in lecturer level teaching-only jobs, with the bulk of this growth arising through the employment of casuals.

“This, in turn, may reflect growth in the volume of student enrolments, and university strategies to accommodate that growth at low cost,” the authors frankly admit. As well, they say that over the decade there has been virtually no expansion of academic appointment opportunities in the “conventional middle-academic ranks”.

“This may indicate a diversification of career progression opportunities, with greater specialisation of the academic workforce,” the compilers say.

At the same time, however, there was a 20% decline in the number of teaching and research appointments below lecturer level, which the note says may point to “diminishing entry opportunities to the traditional teaching and research academic career”.

Union alarmed

Just why the Go8 decided to release such a brief but grim account at this time is not clear, except it may hope to influence the Senate committee currently inquiring into government plans to ‘reform’ the nation’s higher education system.

But the National Tertiary Education Union, or NTEU, says the key issue in the Go8’s analysis is not just the growth in teaching-only and research-only staff, but that their jobs are so precarious. The union says that 80% of research-only academics are now on short-term contracts that last only as long as their projects, while 80% of teaching-only staff are casuals.

“Apart from being appallingly exploitative, the universities are just taking advantage of their academics’ commitment to research and their loyalty to students. This does not bode well for opportunities for the next generation of academics continuing to seek work in Australia,” says union President Jeannie Rea.

“Cutting-edge research that seeks to solve the big issues is impossible when researchers have to look over their shoulders and write research funding submissions on the basis of achievable outcomes rather than pursuing the hard questions.”

Rea says the majority of Australia’s university students are now being taught by staff employed by the hour, with impossible limits on their student contact and marking time. As a result, casual academics effectively have to work for nothing – or leave students seeking feedback and frustrated.

Adding to the problems is the fact that the academics who now write the courses are not teaching them and the academics teaching them have no say in course reviews. Rea says this “cannot be good for either maintaining quality or encouraging innovation”.

“It is astounding that vice-chancellors are prepared to go along with this. Most universities strenuously resisted the NTEU’s claim in the last enterprise bargaining round for a new teaching focused role, called a ‘scholarly teaching fellow’, although most eventually agreed.

“We hoped to get around 1,000 new positions arising from the agreement and expect to get close to that. But on their track record I have no confidence that, if the universities get their way with deregulation and are able to charge students more in fees, the money they raise will go into improving employment arrangements.”

This article was written by Geoff Maslen and was originally published on University World News. Home page photo by David Burke/ Flickr Commons.


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