Just How Flexible Are Casual Academics?


Yesterday a group of casual staff at Sydney University showed just how “flexible” they can be by taking part in a yoga stunt outside a high-level executive meeting. Their message to management? Casuals are sick of being forced to bend over backwards in the name of “flexibility”.

When we practise yoga, we know that our strength, flexibility and energy comes from a solid foundation whether through our hands, our feet or the top of our head. In yoga we say “sthira sukham asanam”: our foundation must be strong, and steady. Equally, true flexibility in the workplace must be based on a secure foundation of respect and equity in the employment relationship. Without such a foundation, flexibility becomes one more way to undermine workers’ rights.

While flexibility has become a popular buzzword in corporate management, from the worker’s perspective it is largely code for employment insecurity. University management uses the rhetoric of flexibility to shift the risk of fluctuating student numbers to staff. NTEU research published in 2012 found that since 1996, the use of casual workers to perform core teaching roles has increased by 81 per cent, with over half of all undergraduate teaching now done by casual academics.

Casuals provide flexibility to university managements because they are paid by the hour and can have their hours changed or cancelled at short notice. They are also cheap. They have no access to sick pay or holiday pay and they provide the university with massive cost savings by performing hours of unpaid labour. Casual academics are not paid extra for entering students’ marks into electronic databases, for dealing with plaigarism or for high levels of email correspondence and student consultations. In addition, one casual told us: “Last semester, the department changed our pay system. Now we have to process our own time-sheets, which can take up to an hour each fortnight.”

Casual workers are also under pressure to perform unpaid labour in order to be considered for future employment. A PhD student reported: “I was ‘invited’ by my supervisor to give a lecture. There was no discussion about payment, it was just expected and I didn’t feel comfortable to decline. ” This is not about gaining teaching experience; it is free labour.

Less obvious, is that casual staff now directly subsidise the university by contributing to university research funding through their publication output. While casuals may only be paid for the hours they are teaching each week, they are also compelled to maintain their research track record in the hope of making it in the lotto that is the academic labour market.

But casual work gives employees the flexibility to balance work and family, right? While lines like this are regularly rolled out in defence of casual work, they don’t hold up. There are a range of ways in which organisations can support employee work-life balance. A secure job is at the top of the list. By contrast, no sick pay, no holiday pay and an incredibly unstable income is anathema to balancing work and personal life. While work may be increasingly “flexible”, expenses and commitments remain fixed.

As one casual academic says: “As far as I'm aware you can't give birth to a fixed-term kid and you can't contract to pay a rental lease or a mortgage for 13 weeks a year. This is not just about work worked in tiny parcels, this is about being asked to live small lives in tiny parcels — one 13 week contract at a time.”

Casuals also report struggling to find affordable childcare for when they go to work because semester breaks interrupt their income and they face losing their child’s place in childcare.

In addition, casuals are concerned with how much anxiety and stress their children are witnessing at home, as Jen puts it “my children are growing up with constant exposure to my job insecurity, frustration and sadness”.  As Elias and Melanie (both in their early 40s) point out, a lack of secure work poses a challenge to having a family at all. Melanie and her partner had decided not to have children, arguing that it is “hard enough to manage your own lives with the type of work that we do to even think about having to manage someone else”. When Elias was asked about this plans for having a family, he too reports insecure work as a barrier —  “I mean we haven’t discussed it. And I think the reason we haven’t discussed it, about the timing, is because I don’t have an ongoing job…if I did get security, in some form – I think that would be the first conversation we would have… I don’t think [my partner]is willing to make that decision until I have ongoing work – she has actually said that.”

Conversely, Anne left academia once she had her daughter: “After nearly a decade of training it became a choice between my family and my job. The hours and income are unpredictable, plus if I got sick or my kids got sick I would lose my whole week’s income.”

The Casuals’ Network at Sydney University, like similar groups in universities around the country, is working with the unions to bargain for claims that will reduce casualisation and provide genuine pathways into academic careers. Flexibility doesn’t work if it is one-sided and unbalanced. As workers, our strength and power in the employment relationship comes through collective action. Flexible working arrangements must be negotiated collectively through our unions and must be grounded by job security. 

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.