Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why I resigned from the University of Melbourne Council

Here's the article I had published in Crikey on Wednesday 9 December 2009.

Melbourne university post grad student Tammi Jonas writes:

On Monday, I resigned from the University of Melbourne Council in protest against the University's exploitation of its casual labour force, which is largely made up of postgraduate students. I myself was asked to teach a seminar for free that I had previously been paid to present, and chose to use my own example to fight for the many others who are all too frequently put in this untenable position.

You can read my resignation in yesterday's Crikey, or else on my blog, as well as the email inviting me to teach for free. The withdrawal of my labour from an exploitative system is a strategic and ideological choice I started to make a few years ago when I opted out of tutoring in the Arts Faculty, where remuneration and conditions are woeful, as they are at so many Australian universities.

So a few facts: casual staff are delivering about 50% of the university sector's teaching, Data from DEEWR also shows that there are more women than men employed as casuals, which has particular implications for women with children, who we know are still doing the lion's share of caring for children. Casual staff have no paid leave and no job security, let alone a clear career pathway. As the sector grapples with understanding how it will replenish its ageing workforce, it continues to employ people under casual contracts with no plan to integrate them into the future workforce. Meanwhile, some 60% of Australia's PhD graduates leave the sector entirely, a figure that has been climbing steadily for many years.

So what does all of this mean to the average postgrad who thinks, 'great, I'd love to teach!' There is great disparity in wages and conditions between institutions – I'm assured that Melbourne University is by no means the worst offender.

Many tutors attend lectures as part of their preparation for tutorials, but at most institutions this is unpaid. The Head of the School of Political and Social Sciences at Melbourne has informed his casual staff that “Tutorials are not designed to go over lecture content – they should be capable of standing alone. Where they are merely going over lecture content, they are not doing what they are designed to do.”

This is a total furphy – of course tutorials are designed to support the lecture content, though not to slavishly 'go over' it. Would he be happy if the lecture that week was on racism in the media and the tutorial was on feminism in India? This same head of school also asserts that there is no need for face-to-face meetings between subject coordinators and tutors, and that the “LMS [an online space for learning materials, with discussion forums] seems a suitable format in which staff can communicate with each other.”

This is his justification for not paying for meetings – whilst tutors spend MORE UNPAID time on the LMS. Tutors are also often asked to give guest lectures without pay, sometimes 'lucky' to receive a bottle of wine. A lecture can take up to a week to prepare when you're doing it for the first time, so even when it is paid at the rate of 3 hours per hour of delivery, it's totally insufficient.

Many tutors are not provided with any office space in which to work or consult with students, and those who are must share an office, which can be very awkward if meeting with a distressed student. Those without offices meet with students in cafes or other public places, which is even more awkward with a distressed student.

Many casual staff talk about 'semester bleed', whereby they must attend to issues around academic misconduct and students contesting their marks well after their contract has finished. And a number of universities don't even pay for end of semester marking, which can take dozens of hours to complete. It is unconscionable that institutions whose very raison d'etre is to contribute to the global public good are exploiting their least powerful members. The old 'we don't do it for the money' argument has worn thin.

I say no matter WHY we do it, they're going to have to pay us.


Verity Bee said...

Congratulations on your excellent article Tammi and your brave action. Not only is this a theme within universities, but in many government sectors. The 'global financial crisis' has only heightened people's fears of missing out on hours of work and therefore many hours of unpaid work are being exploited - "better do it to keep the peace... and my unsecured job."

It's amazing how many 10 minutes here, 30 minutes there start to add up, especially when you've bathed, dinnered, put to bed the kids and here we are back at the computer for just a sec, to keep the peace and the job...

Brett Farmer said...

Hi Tammi,
You may not remember me but I used to work in the English Dept @ unimelb. While I'm truly sorry to hear that conditions have become such that they have warranted your resignation from the Council, you are to be applauded for bringing attention to the issue and challenging the appalling normalization of exploitative labour practices @ unimelb, as indeed elsewhere in Oz higher ed. Here's hoping your courageous move brings positive results.
Brett Farmer

Tammois said...

Thanks, V. It's not even just the public sector, these trends are sadly broader. But they won't change unless we organise ourselves and offer cross institutional, cross-sectoral solidarity, which is what I'm trying to be involved in. I'll have much more capacity as CAPA President next year, so watch this space!

Brett - of course I remember you! Thanks very much for your comment. I guess in my self-confessed committed idealist way, I'm hoping others will be inspired to withdraw their labour, fight the hegemons, and generally get active to make change. In the meanwhile, I intend to make a whole lotta noise in this space. :-) (Btw, you're in Thailand now, aren't you? How are things there?)

pax, tj

James Ng said...

Unfortunately Tammi, I don't forsee universitys ever changing. Let me put this argument before you and the rest of your readers and please keep an open mind to it, even though I know it might be very distasteful.

Lets say that you're a student and that you have quite a bit of money to spend on your education. The catch is that there are only two tutors available to teach you.

One tutor knows everything on the subject area, but he doesn't hold any qualifications. He offers to tutor you and pass on his knowledge but at the end of his course you would not receive any degree or any formal recognition of your training. All you would have is the knowledge. If you tried getting a job with pure knowledge, how would people verify that you knew? Tough call for an employer to trust a job candidate that much.

The other tutor doesn't know what he's talking about. But his name is Einstein. Everyone knows Einstein. Name alone speaks for itself. When Einstein tells people that you know what you're talking about, your acceptance is immediate. Of course, you'd know nothing because Einstein can't teach you. But everyone else would think that you knew. You might even be able to persuade your employer that you knew.

Which tutor would you choose? If you chose Einstein and not the unknown then follow your thoughts through to logical conclusion and you'll see why universitys treat casual staff the way they do, and why they will never change.

Tammois said...

An interesting little parable, James. It seems to me that Einstein is probably the way that the sandstones are in danger of going, where their name will protect them even if they lose all their best people, whereas the non-Go8s have something to prove to the public. However, none of that means we shouldn't work towards change, in my opinion.

By and large, university senior exec members individually care about what is happening and don't want to exploit the least powerful members of their institutions. But systemically, it continues, largely because economic rationalist discourse collides with pragmatism, resulting in a train wreck of industrial issues, which then erode the very core missions of universities.

However, collectively, I still believe we can reverse these trends. It requires lobbying government for more funding for education, asking our governance bodies to show ethical and strategic vision as they govern, and expecting management to be more engaged with the democratic participation of their own members, including staff.

I for one am prepared to lobby, advocate and agitate until more people and institutions pay attention, followed by paying some hard cash to those doing the work. :-) #RIOT