An academic ponzi scheme?

January: Quiet for students, time for research for academics and often terror filled for many sessional staff at universities. It is a month with casual academics searching for the next teaching contract and post-doctoral researchers increasingly searching for a second post-doctoral position (or sometimes third).

And it is not a small number of people going through this during January. Australian universities now depend on sessional teachers, short contract researchers and other casualised and fixed term staff to keep the machine ticking throughout the year.

For those junior academics (at level B), casual staff makes up about a sixth of full time equivalent (FTE) total, and at some universities, they do the majority of teaching because the small proportion they constitute of FTE conceals how many staff work on a part time basis. At level A, over half of full time equivalent staff numbers are employed casually. Overall, the majority of casual academics are women, with their number increasing the lower down the university pay scale.

Sessional and short contract staff members are crucial to the teaching and research effort of universities. If we’re honest many universities wouldn’t be viable without their contribution.

So what? In the new light-speed interconnected economy, you have to sell your wares and university staff are no different. Right?

The argument goes that people get pay and conditions according to what the labour market is willing to bear. These often have little to do with how skilled or worthy a job is. You really have to pull a great degree of mental contortion to argue that any job intrinsically ‘deserves’ to be paid what it is. As some bankers showed during the GFC, being ridiculously well paid does not preclude stuffing the economy. Of course, ask most people what they get paid and they’ll assure you it is too little.

Which is all fine, if a particular labour market isn’t suffering market failure. Having a higher education system too heavily reliant on casual and session labour may yet prove wholly unsustainable.

Decisions we make now about the future of the academic labour force, how we train academics and the conditions universities offer early career academics may be with Australia for a long time to come.

With such a large proportion of the most energetic academic workforce (such as soon after their PhD is completed), facing the prospect of highly uncertain sessional future is a strong incentive to leave the sector. A reliance on short-term grant money may dissuade many talented people from sticking with research.

So as the teaching year begins in 2014, we risk moving ever closer to an unsustainable academic Ponzi scheme.