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.

Sincerely,

Tammi


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)
www.tammijonas.blogspot.com

“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

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Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community…

5 thoughts on “Stop the Exploitation of Casual Labour in Universities!”

  1. 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.

  2. 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!

  3. 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

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