Monday, December 07, 2009

Stop the Exploitation of Casual Labour in Universities!

At the recent State of the Industry conference in Sydney, there was a great deal of talk about the exploitation of casual labour in universities, especially that provided by postgraduate students. The very next week, I was invited to teach a seminar for free that I have been paid to deliver for nearly two years. In outrage and out of solidarity with others in similar situations, I decided to resign immediately from my position on Melbourne University Council and use the example to reinvigorate the long-standing campaign to improve remuneration and conditions for casual academics. I somewhat naively thought that I would send my email to the University Council, receive a dismayed response, and continue with the campaign in my role next year as President of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA). I say naive, because somebody immediately leaked the email to Crikey. Since it's now public, but behind a paywall, here is the email, with two minor omissions to attempt to protect the privacy of staff members who are not willingly complicit in this system of exploitation, and who should not be placed in such a position as to have to ask postgrads for free labour.

CAPA will be very active next year in attempting to secure better remuneration and conditions and improved career pathways for casual academics, as well as more access to resources and collegial cultures, and we hope to work closely with the NTEU on this. I urge all casual academics to make your voices heard, and to withdraw your labour if it is not being appropriately rewarded, if you are in a position to do so. For those in better circumstances, I urge you to show your support for the others!

The email in question:

Dear Chancellor and fellow Councillors,

It is with disappointment that I submit my immediate resignation as a member of the Melbourne University Council.

Below is an email I received from a staff member at the Melbourne School of Graduate Research inviting me to teach a seminar for which I have been paid these past two years for free, due to lack of funding. (The staff member, by the way, was mortified to be put in this position, and has always been a great proponent for paying the presenters, as well as an excellent coordinator.) As most of you will know, I have been campaigning against the exploitation of casual labour, especially that of our postgraduate students, at both the campus level as President of UMPA (now the GSA) last year and nationally as VP for the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) this year. I was elected 2010 President of CAPA last week, and intend to continue advocating for casuals in that role.

You may or may not know that the Arts Faculty made a 'strategic decision' to stop paying for guest lectures last year, which has put countless postgraduate students in the position of offering or agreeing to teach the lectures for free in the belief that it will be good for their careers - never mind the many unpaid hours it takes them to prepare and teach, which is often in addition to paid work elsewhere. The GSA and CAPA believe this situation is absolutely outrageous and indefensible.

I will not be teaching any of this or other universities' subjects for free, and nor do I encourage any other students to do so. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have a scholarship are, as CAPA publicised last year, living just below the Henderson Poverty Line. The small increase in APAs won by CAPA for next year will nudge the scholarship just above the poverty line. And yet a university with a billion dollar budget has the gall to tell us that it does not have the resources to pay for our labour. I for one am responding by withdrawing my labour entirely from this system of exploitation, and strongly encourage others who can to do the same. We can all at least agree not to teach for free, but also where possible, not to teach under the appalling remuneration and conditions facing casual tutors.

As a Councillor, I am clearly not in a position to speak out about the outrageous, unethical management decisions being made by Melbourne University, and so I would like my resignation to be accepted immediately. It is also against my own ethical position to remain on a governance body that will allow the University to continue to move in this direction, where its least powerful members are so desperately undervalued. I would also bring to the Council's attention that across the sector, sessionals are doing over 50% of the teaching, and postgraduates make up 57% of the sector's research and development output. What is strategic about disenfranchising this labour force?

I wish you all well as you endeavour to govern an unmanageable state of affairs.



Dear Tammi,

Many thanks for your participation in the eResearch training program for graduate students in 2009. I have really appreciated your enthusiastic participation and feedback from participants for your Web 2.0 & Social Media for Research Students: Wikis, Blogs and Beyond has been very positive. The University of Melbourne seems to be leading the pack with this type of training and [there was a presentation by Melbourne] at the eResearch Australasia conference earlier in November. [We] believe that the program has been instrumental in raising awareness across the university of the importance of equipping our research students with eResearch skills and tools. At the e-Volution eResearch Symposium at the University in September, the DVC-R, Professor Peter Rathjen, highlighted the need for a University-wide strategy to educate and train RHD candidates in eResearch. He identified the need for all RHDs to be aware of and to incorporate into their daily practice, elements of University policy on data research management, including data access and integrity, and to develop their eResearch skills. The program also features in the draft eResearch strategy for the University.
Planning is underway for 2010. I am hoping that you will be able to participate in the program next year. However I need to tell you that MSGR are unable to pay presenters next year. So I understand that this and /or study demands may be a barrier...or any other reasons.... Please let me know at your earliest convenience if you can participate and if the nominated date suits.
Face-to-face classes will continue – and we are planning to expand, adding some new topics, e.g. Video collaboration: EVO & other collaboration tools; Overview of HPC and Visualisation Services; and Digitization. In addition MSGR and Learning Environments will develop an eResearch 'toolkit' in the newly launched Graduate Research Portal on Sakai. All research students will have access to the portal in 2010.

Tammi Jonas
PhD Candidate, Cultural Studies
University of Melbourne
Vice President (National Operations), Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA)

"I awake each morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savour the world. This makes it hard to plan my day." E. B. White


Zoe said...

Good for you. What an outrageous request.

ThirdCat said...

okay, so this is going to sound weird from a complete stranger (though I've been lurking round these parts for some time)...thanks so much for sharing for that. For very many reasons. Thanks.

Injera said...

Well done, Tammi. What a horrible position to be put in, but you're fighting the good fight!

Tammois said...

Thanks guys. It's horrible that they put the staff member in the position to have to ask me (and others). For me, it's just a bummer as I loved teaching that particular seminar, but there will be other, paid options. But for the countless others out there, I will definitely keep fighting the good fight! #RIOT!

Mike Beggs said...

Good on you Tammi. (Found this via Crikey.)

When tutors were organising at Sydney Uni last year we went door to door through the departments and found to our shock that in some disciplines whole tutorial programs are being taught by 'volunteers'. We found in European languages in particular exchange students were being used as tutors - not only were they not being paid, they were paying for the privilege of being there! In at least one other Arts discipline tutors were doing it for the 'experience'.

Anonymous said...

Thank heavens someone has had the guts to resign publicly from the university council and provide some insight as to how dysfunctional the governance of this institution has become. The remaining members are deluding themselves if they think Glyn and his Melbourne Muddle are anything different from the maiden vogage of the Titanic.

ramon said...

Thanky you, Tammy - was terrific to see the article in Crikey

elsa said...

Thanks for that Tammi. I was beginning to think I was the only postgraduate who valued their services.

I recently raised the issue of underpayment with a couple of my causal, postgraduate student colleagues. In return I received hateful emails, plus said colleague alerted our boss to the fact that I was complaining...

Elle T. said...

I'm writing this as a mature-age student with several years corporate experience.
I can assure you that many tutors we've had aren't worth the money they're paid - however meagre the wages.
In three years, I've had two who were any good. We were even subjected to a tutor who couldn't speak English properly, but because she was doing her Masters or PhD, she was supposedly qualified to teach.
Similarly, we've had lecturers who were PhD candidates, whose lecturing "skills" have been appalling,
Nowadays, when just about everybody is doing their Masters/PdD, I would expect a more qualified lecturer.
My observation of academic staff: researchers and teaching staff, is that they wouldn't survive a week in the real workforce.
What you lack in pay, you make up for in what has to be one of the most lax working environments ever.
As for your position - no one is forcing you to do what you're doing. There are tens of thousands of people (especially since the economic downturn), who are putting in extra (unpaid) hours, in jobs they hate. So to be doing something you supposedly love, and to begrudge the conditions seems extravagant.
News flash: casual employees EVERYWHERE are exploited.
Do yourself a favour and go and experience the real world for a bit of a reality check.
p.s. A whole week to prepare a lecture. Are you serious?

Tammois said...

Mike – that's appalling! I would really like to start working more directly with other campuses soon, including Sydney, to help the postgrad associations fire up their own local campaigns. If you're interested in being involved, let me know!

Ramon and Elsa – thanks for the support and feedback – as per my comment to Mike, we'll see what we can do to offer more support for campus campaigns across Australia in 2010!

Elle – I went ahead and published your comment even though it's incredibly unproductive, somewhat offensive, and offers a very narrow and personal view. However, of course it's unfortunate that you have had bad lecturers or tutors over the years – who hasn't? Given your corporate background, you'd be well aware that there are unqualified people working in all sectors. There is little to no pedagogical training for university teaching staff – this is fundamentally to the detriment of the entire system. Having said that, I've known many excellent and passionate lecturers and tutors in my many years at university.

If this was an assignment, you would lose points for the contradictory claims that one of your tutors was terrible and it was erroneously assumed that because she was doing a research degree she could teach, and then following it with 'everybody's doing their Masters/PhD, I would expect a more qualified lecturer.'

We'll skip over your thoughts on a fantasy 'real workforce' and 'lax working environments' so as not to overly expose your ignorance of workload issues in the sector.

And before carrying on too much about this 'real world' of which you speak, maybe do a background check on some of the people in question. In the academy, we prefer our arguments to have substance. Hopefully you've finished so that underpaid tutors don't have to mark your work anymore.

Thanks for the news flash. I guess there are some people who see injustice and are too apathetic or oppressed (or distracted, busy, hopeless or tired) to do anything but remain complicit in their silence. And then there are those of us who act.

Katya said...

Just had to pop on an leave a comment, have discovered your blog via word of mouth and after reading your piece on crikey and wanted to say good on you for standing your ground. Also agree with your above response, I am so sick of people thinking that tutoring is some airy fairy fun job where I wander in and teach for an hour and get paid super well.

ignatious said...

yeah, wow, Elle T., you know the saying "Build a bridge and get over it"? Well I recommend you build a bridge not to get over it, because that wouldn't be much fun, but so you can hide under it like the troll you are.

Tell me more about your views. They seem exceptionally interesting and not at all obvious to someone with half a brain.

1) Getting training to be an educator is not high on any university's list of priorities for their postgrads, why? Because postgrads are the product that the university factory produces and they are a resource of surplus labour.

2) I have a PhD and work in the 'real world' after being a casual academic fulltime for a year and throughout the five years of my phd. The real problem for ex-academic staff is having to think like everyone else in the workplace. That is in a non-creative manner conditioned by what managers believe.

Mike Beggs said...

Hi Tammi,

Sure, keep me in the loop. mikejbeggs at gmail .

Our organising campaign in Sydney was pretty successful in the departments where we were strong, achieving, for example, no unpaid marking (i.e. two prep hours per tute only for prep) and a more realistic essay words marked per hour benchmark. The campaign then kind of folded into the campus-wide enterprise bargain over the past year. At the time we thought we were pretty much on our own in doing something, did not know much about Melbourne or elsewhere.

I haven't been tutoring this year but can put you in touch with people.

Necron 99 said...

Our uni runs PASS sessions run by current undergrad students on a casual rate. As an undergrad and a small-time facilitator's position, it's not so bad (I'll be orientation assistant next year) as any bit of extra work helps. There are those working full-time and studying full-time... though I disagree with this, most end up cutting back on lectures as they're not compulsory.

One of our co-ordinators last semester was a casual... I was appalled. This really has to stop.

Perhaps there are too many stupid people (like Elle) who think we should just stick our heads in the sand when things get bad. How absurd is that? Long live Work-choices, is that it!!??

At the moment, we're desperately trying to get the correct quota of students on the board of "Connect", the company that pretty much runs everything at our uni. They're supposed to have 13 members, 6 private citizens/employees, 6 undergrads and 1 post-grad, but they have 4 privates and 2 undergrads. I don't think this situation can possibly be more absurd. I even remember reading how the student-body were celebrating about five years ago how they managed to restrict tutorial numbers to 15. It's not uncommon for us to have 25-35 per tutorial now. What happened!!!??


p.s. Maybe I'll try to get elected to the board (I have actually been thinking about it) just so I can quit too, if it'll do any good. Good on you Tammi.

Tammois said...

Thanks for the comments and info sharing, Mike and Paolo. Paolo - have you been in touch with 'the Hive' at UWS? They're the postgrad association and should be able to help with getting postgrad reps onto the board.

As for your idea to go for the board position and then quit - I say go for it! Decisive action certainly gets attention, as I've found recently!

Keep up the good fight everyone! #RIOT

Anonymous said...

As the exploitation of casual uni staff continues, yet again the NTEU act like an ALP(Rightwing faction)lapdog waiting to be told when to bark.

I have a friend who has worked as a casual at Melbourne Uni for 11 years and she just got replaced with a permanent. No thank you's, no long service and no holiday pay.

Where has the NTEU been all this time whilst workers are treated like Dickensian chimney sweeps?
Perhaps they are too bust planning their climb up the political ladder.

Anonymous said...

Re: the NTEU at Melbourne Uni (Anon comment above):
The NTEU were the only people I could talk to on the main campus when I was being pushed out by the head of department (courtesy of Glyn Davis' policies). I cannot praise the NTEU people highly enough for their assistance in what was a very difficult time for me. Human Resources/Personnel side with the management, as you would expect from university employees, and I don't know how those guys sleep at night after having to deal with the human consequences of Glyn's policies.

I think the great difficulty for the NTEU is that so few staff are union members (I was a long-time member), although I would hope the numbers have increased since 2008. This puts them at a serious disadvantage in any bargaining with the UoM management, and also means they have little cash to work with. I think they could do a far better job if say, 30% of staff were union members. You only really think about this when you are being 'stabbed in the back' by people you thought were on your side, otherwise most staff have their heads down desperately trying to keep up with all their responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

Tammi, my post has disappeared. It was on my experiences with the NTEU at UoM, and responded to the post by 'anonymous' of 8:33 PM, March 21, 2010 (currently the last one on the page:
I thought it was relevant and on topic. Any reason for the deletion?

Tammois said...

Anonymous (perhaps you could at least choose a pseudonym?) - your comment is still there on my page? I can see it right now? Let me know whether you can & I'll chase it up if not?

Btw, on the NTEU, I work closely with them & find them a passionate bunch, fighting the good fight. What I will say for the earlier Anonymous is that like any organisation, they can vary somewhat in their responsiveness & clarity by branch. But never give up on your union just because one local branch is less helpful than you wish - structures should not be dissolved because of a few (transient) personalities!

MMM said...

My NTEU comment is still invisible to me. Everything else on the page is visible, including your reply. Glad you had a similar experience with the NTEU. Great bunch.
OK, I have a name now - MMM

MMM said...

thanks Tammi, all back again.