Efficiency and productivity in universities: the casual academic experience

Here are some current practices in an Australian university that are ostensibly meant to produce efficiency and productivity, but don’t.

1.  Casual teachers need to re-apply to be on a Casual Teaching Register every semester (or session).  This involves submitting a relevant academic CV, filling out an Expression of Interest form with duplicate information on it, and providing evidence of evaluation or feedback on their teaching.

This is inefficient because it is repeated every session.  It is also inefficient because the printing, scanning, and uploading involved are tedious, particularly when hustling work without an office, printer, or photocopier.

*Please, make or accept electronically completed forms, and accept digital signatures or the applicant’s name as sufficient*.

This process is also tedious and inefficient because when faculties  and departments merge (due, no doubt, to increasing efficiency), the process, for some mysterious reason, needs to be repeated.  As does providing a copy of qualifications and photo ID.

*Really, can we take a photo of our licence on our device and email it to you?  Dropbox?  What is truly efficient here?*

The history of employment with the very same unit, often teaching the same, or similar subjects, for the same, or similar people, does not bear on the need to repeat this process.  This is inefficient.  And demoralising.

Finally, this repeated process is inefficient because it does not seem to bear on the decision-making process of being employed as a casual tutor, which often happens 9 months after each of these Expression of Interest rounds (at my University you submit these applications mid-year to be on the register for the next teaching year, which begins in March).

Clearly, much can happen in 9 months for a precariously employed academic: pregnancy, childcare, submitting a PhD, still not submitting a PhD, a house move, a new partner, a break up, finding other work.  And much can happen in a school in terms of lecturer and subject co-ordinator allocation, and of course, enrolment numbers.  In my experience, no matter what paperwork has been submitted, there is always a last minute tussle (and often, panic) to find casual teachers.  Right up until, and including, when classes start.  Indicating availability, and indeed, discipline strengths, 9 months prior does not always bear on what happens when people are in panic mode.

The part of the decision making process, about how many classes are running, and who is approved to teach them, is fairly opaque from the casual perspective, making the business of whether I am the most qualified for the job inconsistent, to say the least.  It is highly de-motivating if the rationale for submitting duplicate paperwork is invisible.

2.  Short contracts (technically ‘authorities’ to be paid a certain amount, with no guarantee) are clearly key to the efficiency agenda.  Shave off any unnecessary hours and benefits and employ  tutors, research assistants and generally helpful PhD students in a piecemeal fashion.  The logic is clear.  Until, perhaps, you consider how many of these contracts can be given to the same person, and the administrative toil involved in hiring, processing hours, extending the amount of hours, re-hiring, etc.

I am currently on Job No. 27 for my Workplace.  27 times of being sent the contract in the mail.  27 times returning it in the mail or by driving, paying for parking, returning the contract.  27 times waiting to hear if I am offered more hours than the ‘basic’ contract, which for teaching  is one or two hours a week.  And for each of those jobs, calculating my pay, budgeting what that will mean for my life, bills and rent, and what else I will have to hustle.

However, it is not just the casual academics who provide unpaid administrative labour.  The finance and human resources teams also field the  confused emails from sessionals about claiming pay, send out the mountains of paper contracts each session, put more Job Numbers and allocations into the system, approve the pay claims each fortnight.  Some of this is automated, yet, in my experience, there are still many administrative hours (these ones paid) spent on the rigmarole of short contracts.  Our friends, the full time academics, are also involved in signing off and approving these contracts for teaching or research assistance.

These are two small examples of inefficiency which actually include a significant amount of administrative hours, both paid and unpaid.  (Clearly, there is potential for research here to find out how much labour we are speaking of, which could include administrators’ and lecturer/subject co-ordinator hours).

A suggestion?  Permanent part-time.  Two, or even one-day-a-week positions.  That could go through summer.  That could mean that adequate preparation, evaluation and consolidation is done for the teaching that occurs.  That means that a research assistant is at hand for the school.  To catch all of those pieces of student and teacher feedback and suggestions and to work on them and help make them happen.

It’s telling, really, that this seems at once luxurious and too much to ask, and like asking for a paltry crumb.  Still, it’s the suggestion that I have at the moment.  I look forward to hearing other ideas.

(And productivity?  Even though I have high standards for my work as a teacher, assistant, and researcher, any incentive to be generous and productive in my allotted hours is eroded with each duplicate form or precarious offer of one hour work a week).

Casual Submission

I submitted my Phd thesis a few days ago.

It hasn’t really sunk in yet.  I have been doing a fair bit of casual work, and just sleeping, so I haven’t had much time to stop and reflect that it has Happened.  

Apparently so.  Surreal.  A trickling away of the tasks and to-do’s until I am just uploading a file. Glitches and snags on the way.  Sitting on my bed on a Sunday night with my partner.  Finally after needless glitches angst due to a lack of clear explanation about the uploading process, I couldn’t wait and watch it and see that the upload had failed one more time, so I left the job with my partner.  Then I hear: “Sucess!”

A little bit of tears that night, and the next day while working, probably from exhaustion.  Lots of people are happy for me.  I imagine that I will catch up to their happiness once I have grasped it.

Yet I think that, partly, the process doesn’t help, as there is very little concrete sense of a milestone, an event, a landmark.   Instead, a trickling of an uploading process, a dwindling of final tasks to do, and then a: that will do, I just need this to be gone because I have so much other work.

So that was it.

I have been trying to create my own lunches and coffees on the fly this week.  Like me, most people are busy and  it has felt a little haphazard, so I figure I will have a week or two of rolling catch-ups with people. Which, really, means that I am very lucky.

How strange that this thing, or not even a thing, an atmosphere, a weight, a factor that impacted my life, my other activities, partners, days and nights, a constant low level guilt, is finished with an upload button.  (I still have to finish uploading music files, which hopefully I can get to today).

Having said that, I am very lucky to have some kind and lovely people around me to congratulate me and be happy for me.  

I think the main sense of surreal dislocation is when people say that it is a tremendous achievement: it is, I guess, but the last five years have been a horrible awakening into how a PhD isn’t valued, how I am a job-seeker with the same casual shit prospects, how competitive and mangerialist and horrible much of academic life is, how little value most people place on a PhD, how cynical so many early career researchers are about academia, how little postgrads are valued by their faculties, (yet called on to fill teaching gaps when in panic mode), how little understanding a broader sense of the ‘public’ has of the value of Arts or critique, how the vices of perfectionism, procrastination and anxiety love to cluster in and around researchers who are only valued for their quanitified output, how toxic management of Universities truly is … all of this makes it hard to feel the ACHIEVEMENT.

However, as I read and edited and proofread the thesis itself, I did occasionally go: whoa, that’s right, I remember thinking through that, reading that, writing that … re-drafting that 26 times … and then I get a glimpse of the effort.

It’s done.  Whatever it is, it’s done.

(Until the revisions …)




One of those

Just having one of those days where you have to pay for parking because you got called into work which means paying for transport for the other days that you have to work is threatened.  Because you are a casual worker with not enough hours.  Even though you are willing.  But the pay doesn’t come through till next week to pay to get to the job.  And eat.  And all of the other freelance artist work and academic work always has the cheque in the mail.  Because the senior board members need to sign the cheques and they have been on holidays.  Because they get holidays.  Where you have to move your car at lunch to avoid paying for it.  Change the shoes to walk back from the car.  Where the system has a bug so it’s hard to get work done.  Where it’s hard to get the money to have the clothes for the dress code for the job.  All of which could be easier if there was at least part time permanent, or job sharing.  Where submitting the PhD is getting shunted around casual hours.  Where reporting to Centrleink about a missed appointment because of working is almost impossible because of phone reception and phone queues.  Where I finally get a call back but it takes most of my lunch hour to do this (while walking back from the car parked further away).  Where rescheduling the Centrelink appointment will also take time from the PhD submission because I can’t wait until next week to have it because I need to apply for an advance payment.  To pay bills and car expenses, to help my partner get to a job interview.  Where filling out the job hunting efforts for Centrelink is kinda stupid because I am working in multiple roles, and have much working coming up (so it seems, it’s always precarious though), and I am extremely highly qualified, but this is not recognised (and it’s so goddamn hard to get the thing submitted around this admin treadmill bullshit).


You know.  One of those.