The casualisation of the academic profession
While searching for something completely different the other day I came across a fascinating internal document issued recently by another university, not in Ireland. The document is a guidance note for Faculty Deans, to be used by them when appointing casual academic staff. So for a start, what kind of appointments are we talking about here? The document notes that it applies where staff ‘are employed to perform work that is ad hoc, intermittent, unpredictable or involves hours that are irregular.’ You might think that this will be a fringe part of the employment portfolio of the institution. Not so, apparently, for it goes on to state that such appointments ‘now make up, at least in volume terms, the bulk of all recruitment activity’. Furthermore, the purpose of the guidance note is to ensure that the university concerned does not enter into legal commitments and responsibilities going beyond a casual and limited relationship, and that the termination of that relationship will not be subject to complexities or long notice periods.
Temporary, part-time and casual appointments are not of themselves new in academic life, and in some settings they are actually desirable. For example, they represent an effective way of bringing practitioners in as teachers on professional courses without having to turn those practitioners into permanent academics; but until now the assumption has been that such appointments are additional to and support the core work of professional academics. Also, casual appointments can provide part-time employment for people doing research degrees, or taking a sabbatical.
But right now in a number of countries the funding crisis affecting higher education is forcing institutions to alter their staffing structures fundamentally, not necessarily by design but nevertheless in an emphatic manner. The financial liability created by a permanent full-time appointment is often now unmanageable in terms of organisational risk assessment. In addition in Ireland, the ‘employment control framework’ imposed on higher education by the government is actually at least for now prohibiting universities from making any permanent appointments at all; if you add to that the requirement to cuts jobs and the availability of funded early retirement, the entire structure of the academic profession is being changed, and not even in a long term process. It is almost instant, and within one academic generation universities will be quite different places unless there is a fundamental shift.
It is true that we need to be realistic. The idea of an academic profession consisting more or less entirely of long term employees in secure posts has gone and won’t return. This is not because of any malicious intent by university managements or the state, but because much more of a university’s portfolio of activities is now project-based (particularly in research) with a limited life span. Universities need to have the capacity to be much more flexible than they used to be. But on the other hand, the complete casualisation of the academic profession would have deadly consequences for both the student experience and the capacity of universities to have longer term strategic aims – quite apart from the fact that there will be, and there already is, a flight from the profession on the part of qualified younger people. Universities are not hubs of convenience that people can drift in and out of without much formality; there is no academy in that model.
The task for us now is to set out much more clearly and much more publicly what this process is and what it entails, and then plan and campaign for something more viable and offering more effective academic outputs. What we are now drifting into, without much of a fuss, is neither sustainable nor desirable. We cannot just get on with it.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.