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.

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15 Comments on “The casualisation of the academic profession”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    There is no immutable law of history which would dictate that ” The idea of an academic profession consisting more or less entirely of long term employees in secure posts has gone and won’t return.” The truth of this statement is entirely a matter of policy or political choice and not an inevitability. We should not fall into the trap of assuming that the current political and economic conditions are beyond our control. That is either the voice of defeatism or conservatism, neither of which is a particularly helpful basis for constructive debate.

    It’s time perhaps, as you have said yourself on many past occasions, to outline exactly what we think the future of higher education should be and if we believe that it requires long-term employment, security and other conditions, then we should be prepared to argue for them and to acknowledge that across all of society we should be focusing on the quality of life and reshaping our economic system to meet those aspirations, not cheapening and eroding the rights of citizens to serve a morally bankrupt economy. Surely recent events show that it’s time to seriously question subservience to an economic model and fiscal practice which leads to huge income inequalities, environmental degradation and personal corruption at a systemic level. And shouldn’t one of the roles of universities to promote ‘the examined life’ rather than to submit to the vagaries of fate?

    • Iain, that’s certainly a very strong statement, but I have to confess I don’t agree with all of your points. I am absolutely of the view that the model of full-time long-term academic appointments as the basis for university careers is right, but it will never again be the dominant model that it once was. That this is so is not necessarily connected with anything economic – demographic factors play a huge part. People move in and out and through the labour market in a way they didn’t use to; furthermore, we now run shorter term projects and research initiatives with limited life spans which we actually couldn’t run if we could only employ on a permanent basis. The nature of the academic project has, at least in some respects, changed

      Howver, my point was that we cannot, and certainly should not, allow the overall casualisation of the academy. If we don’t watch it, it will happen by stealth.

      • iainmacl Says:

        Ah yes, just being provocative, but the main point is that there is a real danger of accepting the ‘logic’ of casualisation almost by default. The situation in the States as you discuss is one which has grown in scale with time, so my point is just where do you draw the line? – the ‘slippery slope’ type argument and the real danger in ending up with a system that has different categories of staff working under very different conditions.

        It’s also of course worth reflecting not just on our own conditions but more widely in the economy where we end up with some of the situations described for example in much of Barbara Ehrenreich’s work (Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch).

        It’s not that I’m advocating the extreme cases the press and critics love of those who are not ‘preforming’ their duties or whose terms are so loose that they can be exploitative of the system – that’s an issue of management and should be resolved as appropriate. But the situation where we now in Ireland actually have abolished permanent contracts (under the ECF) is likely to have a very profound effect on many early and mid-career academics and really has an inherent danger of being seen as ‘acceptable’ to government and the managers of the sector the longer it goes on.

  2. sally Says:

    Some reservations about the status quo … but on the other hand …

  3. iainmacl Says:


  4. Frank Says:

    I would be interested to hear your position on the whole fixed-term contract renewal issue, where that renewal will give the staff member entitlement to an open ended contract.

  5. Jilly Says:

    I don’t in any way discount the difficulties (and risks of exploitation) experienced by academics on short-term work contracts. But the rise in their numbers also poses real problems for their institutions and even their full-time colleagues.

    Lecturers on short-term or even hourly-paid contracts cannot to be asked to undertake significant or significantly-responsible administrative roles in their departments. This means that – just as administrative burdens on academics increase – there are fewer and fewer people in departments with the knowledge and institutional position to undertake those burdens.

    This means that attaining that Holy Grail of academia, a full-time permanent position, which is still dependent upon being a good teacher and researcher, and is still thought of as being a ‘reward’ for being good at those tasks, in reality means that you become something close to a full-time administrator. This is bad for the institution and its students, because it deprives them of the most experienced teachers and researchers, who are frequently too busy with administration to research or teach much, if at all.

    And obviously it’s bad for the full-time staff themselves. Your ‘reward’ for proving yourself a good and hard-working teacher and researcher is to be turned into an administrator (which you may not be any good at!), with no time to continue your teaching or research practice: or at least, not in a very meaningful way.

    And as I said, that’s even before we get to the effects on those condemned to the insecurity and instability of the hourly-paid teaching. It really is quite bananas…

  6. kevin denny Says:

    Jilly, ah but it works well for some academics. I know cases of departments/schools where they hire young academics, who are anxious to get a foot on the ladder, and exploit them mercilessly, dumping all sorts of teaching & grading on them.
    As for administration, I suspect the amount of it must vary a lot. In my school, apart from the Head obviously, its probably not too crippling for anyone and whats there gets passed round. I also think hiring one or two good admin people (non-academics) in a department pays huge dividends.

  7. Maestro Says:

    Ah Jilly give me a break!

    I work in a uni where the admin to academic ratio is 1.6:1

    we are suffering from a lack of teaching staff. The casualisation of academia is a **serious** problem – why would someone spend many years studying for a PhD, doing the obligatory 4-6yr Post-Doc and some part time teaching before they can compete for a permanent post.

    For those in science, engineering, medicine, etc. they would be better off going in to industry/commercial research.

    And recently NUIG tried to bring in a 10 year academic contract!
    Apart from being an unattractive proposition for any foreign academic considering a ‘career’ (what is that?) in Ireland, it is going to hurt Ireland’s reputation as a land of scholars, a place where education matters.

    People need to wake up to what is happening – in a short period of time there will be very few permanent academics left.

    After that …, well the Friedmanites of IBEC will get their way and higher education will become the preserve of those who can pay.

    • Jilly Says:

      Did I say that casualisation isn’t a problem?! I was just trying to point out that it’s a problem for the entire institution, as well as for those actually condemned to the casual contracts.

    • iainmacl Says:

      just for correction, NUIG did not try to bring in a 10 yr academic contract. This is imposed on all academic contracts by the HEA under the employment control framework. The universities have tried to challenge this, but it is a government imposed edict. All posts advertised in all institutions are under this framework, just that some mention it in the small print rather than in the ad itself!

  8. wendymr Says:

    Casualisation in academia is hardly new. For some considerable time in the UK, the proportion of academic staff on fixed-term or other casual contracts has been higher than that of staff on permanent contracts. Can’t comment on Ireland as I don’t have that data. But it does seem that the horse has long bolted when it comes to fighting against casualisation. I remember probably close to twenty years ago representing long-standing hourly-paid staff (teaching less than five hours per week) who had not had a pay-rise in years.

    Which is not to say that casualisation should simply be accepted, for all the reasons you advance here, and I hope that you’ll be able to exert some influence on this topic beyond the end of your term of office. For anyone trying to build a career in academia, the lack of permanent – or even permanent-track – positions is a huge deterrent, and while perhaps some of those in positions of power may not believe that it’s a problem right now, they may want to think about what will happen as the baby-boom generation continues to retire. Who will be there to fill the positions – and, as Jilly says, actually have the institutional knowledge and experience when they get those positions, if the casual contracts they’ve had haven’t involved them in admin roles, university committees and so on?

  9. […] where contracts are a good idea. But to create a university system where this is the norm is self defeating.  Like it or not we are in a globalized market and the market for academic talent is no different. […]

  10. […] (Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland) wrote on the casualisation of the academic workforce on his blog in April of 2010.  In it he gives a well considered account of both sides of the […]

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