Kristin Natalier, Flinders University:
During 2016, I had the privilege of collaborating with a group of TASA members* to develop a Working Document setting out practical responses to the increasingly widespread, destructive and exploitative use of contingent labour in academia. The process had its roots in my concern that as sociologists, many of us are well versed in changing employment patterns, but our conceptual knowledge is not always matched by an awareness of what can be done on a daily basis to resist the effects of such patterns.
Contingent labour in academia is evident in the escalating trend of casual work and fixed-term (often short) contracts, accompanied by a decline in continuing appointments. These forms of employment are normalised: whereas once casual and contract positions were a stepping stone into the security of a continuing position in academia, this work is now the only form of work for many located in universities. Most academics employed on a contingent basis have not chosen this option, and those who report being satisfied with their contingent status tend to be retired or have permanent employment elsewhere (National Tertiary Education Union, 2015). For many people, contingent employment is experienced as unwanted and pressing insecurity and marginalisation.
Higher education’s reliance on contingent labour reflects and responds to structural, institutional and ideological logics. All the contributors to the Working Document believe that the most effective responses to contingent labour come from challenging, dismantling and replacing these forces. This is necessary as a matter of social justice, as a response to the suffering and potentially reduced professional and life chances of colleagues, and to protect the rigour, independence and vibrancy of sociology and universities more generally. The social and disciplinary consequences of contingent labour make this a relevant issue across institutional positions.
The Working Document does not set out solutions to the problem (there are no instructions for effecting revolution). It has a more modest aim: to gather a set of practical strategies that are immediately available and which can limit the material and symbolic impacts of contingent labour on colleagues. These are some first steps to building and buttressing sustainable academic practice.
I encourage you to read the full document – you can find it on the TASA website, here: Please share it with colleagues in academia, particularly those who are formally or informally involved in recruiting, employing, managing, and supporting contingent academic staff.
I also encourage you to make or advocate for change in how you and your institution treats contingent academic staff. The list of practices listed in the Working Document is long (but not exhaustive). I – like many people – have been doing some of them as a matter of course; others are well outside my control. So I was inspired by the writers at the CASA (Casual, Adjunct, Sessional staff and Allies in Australian Higher Education) website to commit to changing just one thing in how I work with contingent academics. I am adding a new thing each semester.
In semester 1, 2016, I focused on building community by ensuring that all members of my teaching team (contingent and continuing) knew each other, and had opportunities to share strategies and experiences.
In the second half of 2016 I explicitly told contingent Research Assistants to claim the time they spent preparing for and attending project meetings, and followed up with them when the claims didn’t come through. I saw this as a way of actually and symbolically valuing how their time and expertise contributed to the invisible labour of meetings.
This first semester of 2017 (Flinders people be warned!) I’ll be providing ongoing informal and formal feedback on performance, in a form that teaching team members can use as evidence in job applications.
These are small steps. They are not a substitute for political and industrial action, but there is human and political value in our mundane and everyday acts of respect and resistance.
*I want to acknowledge the work of the following Working Group members who researched, wrote and edited the document: Erika Altman, Tom Barnes, Suzanne Egan, Christine Malatzky, Christian Mauri, Dan Woodman.