sessional workers in universities

Universities are exploiting their sessional academics. We need to do better for our precariously employed

As the 2020 academic year begins, this will be the first in my seven years of working in universities that I have a permanent position and am not relying on contracts or sessional work. I know how privileged I am to be in this position, but I also know first-hand what precarious employment feels like. I have lived it and I have researched it. It is difficult to describe the phenomena of precarity if you have not experienced this type of employment.

Precarious employment encompasses a wide range of employment situations

The first thing to note ab­­­­out precarious employment in universities is that it actually looks like an incredible variety of different employment situations. It can be long-term contracts of up to three years. In these positions someone might teach classes, hold a research allocation, and provide doctoral supervision. Essentially the person is a full-time academic carrying out duties of someone expected to b­­­­­e within the institution long-term; which begs the question of why not make these people permanent employees? Instead, they perform the same duties, are still on contract, and do not have long-term job security.

However it is at the other end of precarious employment where most will find themselves; this work is around being contracted to teach classes or mark assessment. The primary danger here is underemployment and the traps that surround it.

A university semester lasts four or five months but the contracts can be for only a few hours a week to cover preparing and teaching a class, and later on marking the assessment. The payment is minimal and often the paid hours underestimate the hours these tasks actually take to perform.

So how did we get here?

It is important to think about how we got to the current state of things. Precarious employment in academia has existed for decades, but its extent and function has changed for two main reasons.

The first is there are simply more PhDs looking for jobs in academia. There was a time when precarious employment was primarily held by those completing their PhD, or maybe immediately after completing their degree: it was the contract and sessional work one did before securing a continuing position. However the academic job market has since become increasingly competitive as many more PhDs graduate and look for work.

The second reason, evident in most analyses of the higher education sector, is that it is a cheaper way for a faculty’s teaching to be carried out. As one group of researchers concluded, some universities are hiring ‘armies’ of sessional academics to teach and mark assessments. Most are not doing this because they have to, they do it because it is cheaper, and can free up funds to spend elsewhere. It is probably also a flow on effect of changes to university funding.

My research points to negative and exploitative practices

I undertook a study involving more than 100 sessional academics to investigate the issues sessional academics face as a growing part of the workforce in academia.

I asked about the career support available to them and their views on their precariously employed years. My work points to some negative and some clearly exploitative practices happening in our universities.

A negative factor is that most casual and contract employment relates to teaching and marking with no research component. However, the common – and grounded in truth – trope in academia is ‘publish or perish’. Contract employees who are being paid to teach and mark are still producing research, but they are doing it in their own time without mentoring, career or financial support from the university, even though, in most cases this research work will be attributed to the university for research excellence and ranking purposes.

Around 20 per cent of participants also spoke of exploitative practices such as not being paid for increased workloads, unethical author attribution practices that disadvantaged the casual employee, and concerns or complaints readily being met with threats of cutting contracts short or failing to renew contracts.

There are, however, pockets of good practices happening for precarious academics; those who are lucky enough to have access to support and mentoring, universities that invest in their research and teaching development, and universities that provide opportunities for funding and grants. However, these are not representative of the majority of experiences from participants.

Good practices that could help precariously employed sessional academics

My research showed there are things universities could do to make sure their sessional employees are growing and developing as academics rather than contributing to the ‘academic exodus’.

The first is that precariously employed staff should be able to attend, and – importantly – be paid to attend, professional development around teaching and research. When most staff are employed to cover teaching duties, improving their teaching skills is beneficial to the institution. And all universities should be focused on improving research skills and opportunities for researchers – particularly if they are the affiliate institution benefitting from the precariously employed staff’s research outputs.

Involvement in professional development is also important because it lets casual and sessional staff interact with other staff members when they likely do not have a desk and so spend little time on campus unless directly carrying out their duties. My study showed mentorship and related guidance is highly valued by precariously employed staff because they view it as one of the keyways to improve their work, and better prepare themselves for future job opportunities.

The standout finding from almost every study about precarious employment, mine included, is that, almost nobody wants to be precariously employed. Some people might not want to work full-time, but very few people want to spend year after year with no job security.

So the real answer might be that universities take steps to reduce their contract staff.  But until that happens, the best thing we can do is to make sure our precariously employed colleagues are given as much research support and career guidance as possible. Their goal is a secure position in the academy so surely their institutions, their students, colleagues, and the academy benefit in the long term.

Dr Troy Heffernan is Lecturer in Leadership at La Trobe University. His research is centred on higher education with a particular focus on policy, leadership, administration, management, and inequalities within the sector. His current work explores vice-chancellors’ approaches to management, the emotional labour involved in higher education leadership, the consequences of precarious employment, the implication of personal networks in academic promotion and hiring, and understanding the repercussions of higher education’s shift to business models and marketized practices. His work has received numerous awards for research excellence, and he regularly participates in public and invited speaking engagements. Troy is on Twitter @troyheff