The Concern Over Rising Academic Casualisation: An Interview with Joe McCarthy

Recently, Woroni interviewed Joe McCarthy, a convenor and tutor with over a decade of tutoring experience at ANU, about the concern over rising academic casualisation at the University. In the interview, McCarthy highlighted the sheer growth of expected working hours of casual academics, the damaging impact growing casualisation has on casual tutors, convenors, and students alike, and the inadequate response by ANU. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Joe McCarthy: “Because students’ degrees are usually three to four years and they just don’t really pay attention to the ANU annual reports, go look at the annual education data the Australian government has, you just don’t know how much things have changed. And things have changed a lot. 

If you have a look at the data for ANU, there’s been an increase from about 80 Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs)* in 2009 to 410 FTE in 2019. [One FTE] adds up to about 1725 hours. This is what the government requires them – to just state what the FTE numbers are – but they don’t give us headcount figures [of the number of casual workers] at all. A way to think about the magnitudes is that you are seeing it increase five fold in the space of ten years. You just do a simple multiplication and go 80 x 1725 and 410 x 1725 and you can see how many hours in teaching that has increased, and it’s gone up to like 707,922 hours. That just shows the magnitude of the increase, and it’s really quite problematic.”

*Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs) is a unit of measurement used in a way to make work-loads comparable between different contexts. 

Woroni: How does the casualisation of academic staff impact casual tutors and convenors?

JMThis move to academic casualisation could be problematic in a few ways. It’s problematic because it means that they’re cheaper because you’re not having to have long service leave requirements, sick leave, and so forth. But sometimes that can be balanced out with the twenty five per cent loading. Personally, I don’t think that is the big issue with regards to casualisation. 

The problem is that universities base their pay rates (which are enshrined in the enterprise agreements) on these workload calculations and formulations that were done four decades ago by the Academics Salaries Tribunal. Judith Brett, in that article in The Monthly, discussed that. These Academic Salaries Tribunal [rates are] problematic in a few ways for convenors and the tutors. 

So what they say for a convenor is that you must prepare a one hour lecture in three hours, so a two hour lecture in six hours. Now, just think – when you’re speaking for an hour, that’s about 3000 words or so. Just think about that as an essay, trying to do [3000 words] in three hours, but not just writing it, having to research it. You’re having to synthesise all this material and distil it into something coherent, engaging [and] that students are going to respond to. You can’t do it in that time. And I know this because of the hours that I put in. And so that is very, very problematic. 

And that’s why I argue and I’ve argued sort of in a great general pace that casual convening is indefensible. You just can’t do it. If the university wants to keep it, then they need to acknowledge that at the end of the semester they’re going to get a bill for those extra hours work and they’re going to have to pay if they want to keep it that way.” 

Woroni: What has been your personal experience with the issue?

JM“I convened a course from 2016 to 2020, Sociology of Third World Development (SOCY2030). In 2016 it would have been over $30,000 in unpaid hours that I put in. In subsequent years where I’d put in those hours, it still was $10,000 dollars that I calculated that I got unpaid overtime. But I could have mitigated that amount, I could have just done the same lectures. But even then, doing the same lectures, you still have to get well versed with the themes you haven’t touched in a year. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. 

For tutors, they say for a non repeat tutorial, that a one hour tutorial can be prepared, administered and engaged in two hours. For a repeat tutorial: one hour delivery and one hour preparation, administration and engagement. 

But then you got to think, well, what goes in to adequately prepare for a tutorial, like watching the lectures? 

If we’re going to say lectures are important for students, then we should have our tutors watching lectures. Otherwise, I personally think that they are redundant. Then you’ve got to have an hour of doing a running sheet to think about [the tutorial plan] and make sure that’s coherent… then you’ve got also emailing students and having consultations, which students rightfully expect. 

However, with consultations and with lecture attendance, the enterprise agreement stipulates that those must be paid as ‘other required activity’, and they never budget for that. So when you as a student see your tutor outside of tutorial time, that is them volunteering their time, they’re not required to do so.”

Woroni: How does this impact students?

JM“So with tutorial sizes, they have changed a lot in recent years. And I know this first-hand because I’ve been a tutor for a long time since the early 2010s. The norm for a tutorial [used to be] about 15 odd students. Now it’s gone up to about 23 or more students, and there’s no rational basis for that… it’s not defensible. 

The hours devoted to marking have decreased. I think if we really want to give good feedback, maybe if you get very experienced, then I guess I’ve had the benefit of teaching for ten years. I’ve kind of got the experience. I can do that. But for first or second year tutors, no, it’s a harder to learn activity that requires investment. But the good thing is if you do invest in it, then you’re going to get quality tutors because they’re going to have that experience from year to year. And there are a lot of these tutors… that tutor for one semester, just saw how much time they were volunteering … what they were experiencing and they didn’t come back and they could have been great tutors, great lecturers. 

The reason why I say there’s no real rational basis for the increase in tutorial sites is if you just look at the course fees…in 2019, [courses were] $3000 [per semester] … If you just add up those numbers, you kind of think, well, where’s your money going? Now, obviously, universities have non teaching overheads, but the way I see it is that there is more money going into non teaching parts of the university than then there should be. There should be more money going into the front lines of teaching

But the problem is what the University has done with overseas student revenue [and] domestic students’, their course fees are also subsidising research, [which] means [the University is] paying for people to do research. And so that equates to getting successional staff… of casual academics and casual tutors to… [do] that teaching so you can leave academics to do research. But I think that diminishes the teaching experience for students because students want to be taught by their lecturers. So I think that is very, very problematic. 

Woroni: Have you consulted with the ANU with what they are doing? What have they said?

JM: That’s a good question. That’s what I was actually going to get to. I guess it was a gradual process, but my moment where I thought I need[ed] to talk more about this happened in June or July of last year, after the ACT University Casuals Network did an open letter to the Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt. And in his response to us, he did say that he saw casualisation as an issue and [that] it was going to be his signature initiative of his second term to combat it. And I pressed him… last year about this and he talked about how he’s going to have this ‘reconceptualizing casual work initiative That was meant to be a pilot programme that was meant to start Semester one 2020 that hasn’t happened yet.

But what we think is trying to happen from statements that Brian Schmidt has made publicly, is he wants to sort of stop the employment of casuals. That’s a good thing and he should be commended for that… But it’s a problem when you’re getting paid from nine to twelve, but you [are] expected to work nine to five. And so that is …very problematic. 

And I was told I was going to be engaged for the advisory group, [but they] haven’t [responded] to me on that. They haven’t set up the advisory group at all. I’ve been told that they’re doing modelling. I haven’t seen the modelling yet, but they’re doing the modelling before the advisory group. And I see that as a little bit illogical. Wouldn’t you then canvass the ideas of what’s possible through the advisory group and then go through the modelling stage to see how that stacks up, how much it’s going to cost the university?… 

If we don’t do this, then we’re just going to have the status quo and the status quo is going to get worse… And they’re just not going to put in the work needed to deliver a first class education at ANU. And that’s what the marketing materials say.”

Woroni: Why is the university doing this?

JM: “What’s really important is university rankings and overseas student revenue. And I’m not too sure if you’ve seen the data, but in 2014, overseas student revenue was about 116 million 2014, and that increased to 328 million in 2019. Just think about that, 212 million increase in the space of five years. Overseas students [will] have a look at the research ranking, which I kind of think, “please don’t do that, have a look at the teaching rankings”. Like that’s the importance, because this whole thing about the teaching research nexus can be a bit of a myth. The rankings are problematic, but [the university] still [is a] slave to them. 

You put all that investment into research and then that means that you can get those rivers of gold, but the pandemic showed how unsustainable that business model was. And then there’s other things where you “buy out”** teaching to go for competitive grants. And the problem is that if you go for an Australian Research Council grant or other competitive grants, they never buy out their teaching to the actual hours that it takes to buy out teaching; it’s only the successional hours that you’re buying out.

And if you actually [include] in your grant application the actual amount that it costs to buy out your teaching, then research would be way more expensive…. I strongly believe that the Australian Research Council is getting their research on the cheap. It should be more expensive, and I’m surprised that that’s not talked about as much. ” 

** “Buy-Out” Teaching means when an academic is “bought out” by the university to focus on obtaining research grants rather than teach classes. These classes are instead taught by casual academics.