Grim prospects push PhDs to quit academy

Research suggests that in the US  the PhD could symbolise the end and not the beginning of an academic career and for some in Australia this was becoming the case, a conference in Sydney has been told
In a presentation at the NTEU Australian Universities Today and Tomorrow conference in Sydney researcher Robyn May argued that there were multiple reasons why there should be growing concern about the casualisation of academic work.  Among the reasons was a growing pessimism among PhD graduates about their futures in the university sector.
In the Work and Careers in Australian Universities Survey 2011 casuals (many of them with PhDs) were asked where they would like to be in five years time, and where they expect to be in five years time, and the results reflected a genuine concern about the availability of jobs in the sector, said May. Half of all respondents, and almost two thirds of those with a PhD, said they would like to be working in a continuing academic position in five years. The figures halved when they were asked where they expected to be in five years, and women were slightly more pessimistic than men. 
May’s PhD research is part of a Griffith University ARC project, Gender and Employment equity, strategies for advancement in Australian universities. At the conference held at the University of Sydney she focused on the casual academic workforce in Australian universities.  “It is a picture of thwarted ambition, and wasted talent and investment in particular for those who had undertaken PhDs with the specific purpose of pursuing an academic career,” May said.
May also told the conference that the teaching quality of casuals was being affected by two factors. “My case study research suggests that this impact on teaching quality is being mediated by two very concerning factors – either institutional exploitation or self exploitation, that is over-work by the casual themselves.”
One casual she interviewed told her that to make it viable you really had to restrict the time you put in.  But  he had not restricted his time because he knew that good student assessments would count for a possible future appointment and he cared about the students and wanted to do a good job – “a very common sentiment amongst casuals, they really love their work”. That particular casual concluded that his hourly rate was probably about the same as the security guard or cleaner he saw when he worked late.
May said another risk to quality had been highlighted for her by a manager. Although it happened infrequently, casuals do up and leave half way through semester and this leaves a mess for the staff and students. People she interviewed for her research reported that what they hated the most about their jobs was ‘winging it’, feeling underprepared or being asked to step in and teach at very short notice. This was a function of the hourly rate nature of engagement, she said.
May said there were a number of reasons why there should be concern about the use of casual labour. “It is becoming apparent that there are major equity considerations – women are now the majority of those graduating with PhDs and in part as a result of their concentration in the lower ranks of the academic levels are increasingly concentrated in casual positions.” She also said that   university equity policies did not apply to casual staff – again a function of the hourly rate nature of engagement – but of real consequence to the many women who might enter casual employment with the hope of moving to a more secure position. 
The kinds of supports and assistance that would help them get there are just not available, and the more hours spent teaching the less likely an all important research profile would be developed. “We should also care about casualisation because it raises serious questions about workforce planning, about who are our future academics, what will the university look like when supposedly everyone retires and just why would anyone do a PhD these days?  “
She concluded with a quote from a casual who was reflecting on a conversation she had had with a friend who had secured an ongoing academic position – “she had said to the friend that’s great you’re an academic now, and realised she didn’t think of herself as an academic even though she had been working probably more than full time on a casual basis.” May said her interviewee thought casual work made people feel bad about themselves. “She saw herself being treated differently to other ongoing staff in her work area and was, although very keen to work as an academic, reluctantly weighing up her future outside the sector.”
May drew on four sources of data for her presentation. 
 They were:
*Unisuper, the university superannuation fund which is an industry partner on the ARC research project. Superannuation fund records were used to estimate the headcount size of the casual workforce. 
*Preliminary data from the Work and Careers in Australian Universities Survey that was conducted in 19 universities during 2011, the response rate for casual academic staff was 13 per cent and there was a data set of 3100 which is the largest ever for this cohort of staff.
* Two case studies May conducted in two different universities where she interviewed casual academic staff, academics who manage casual staff and also senior managers.
* Staff statistics produced by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, as provided by the universities.
She asked four questions

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