Monday, 7 May 2012

Precarious Precariat

I have to admit up until a few weeks ago I had never come across the word precariat.  This term might be associated with the low skilled workers, but if you were to ask any casual or sessional academic at Australian universities, they would probably also classify their employment situation as precarious.  Considering most casual and sessional academics require at the very minimum an undergraduate degree, most likely though, a postgraduate qualification or in the process of completing one, the precariat then extends to highly skilled workers as well.  The precariat is you and me.  Is the sessional academic a precariat by choice or as a result of the way in which universities employ us?

The NTEU estimates that 40.2% of the Australian tertiary workforce are currently employed on a casual basis.  This has increased only gradually since 1996 when 34.1% of the tertiary workforce were casual employees.  A publication on teaching in my profession (being architecture) estimates that this figure is much lower, for our particular discipline, at between 24% - 29% although this publication suggests that this is quite high in comparison to other courses that are affiliated with professional organisations.  Australian courses in architecture, in particular, have experienced a constant increase in student numbers from around 1124 students nationwide in 1988 to 4248 students in 2008.  Why then am I tutoring courses that are increasingly cutback?  Why do students have less contact time with me as a tutor than I did with my tutors when I was part of a much smaller cohort?    

Students are aware of the raw deal they are encountering in their studies due to ongoing staff cutbacks at Australian universities. Today, students protested at the University of Sydney.  If students are standing up to the universities - why aren't the staff?  The casual academics who are directly affected and the permanent staff who can't justly employ tutors or research assistants because they will wait weeks for appointment or payment.  I described this situation to a Human Resources Manager for a consultancy firm at a social outing on the weekend and they couldn't fathom that I would wait up to eight weeks to be paid by my employer.  There are serious conditions of employment that the university is freely breaching here.  Moreso, is the unpaid time that universities can squeeze out of the precariat as Professor Guy Standing writes, "The precariat do excessive labour, including taking on several jobs at the same time or doing more unacknowledged 'work for labour' necessary to find or maintain a job,"

 On a final note, the precariat suffers wholly from employment insecurity, it impacts on all spheres of life.  If the federal government is calling for uncapped university courses who will tutor all of these students - the precariat?  Shouldn't this be a case for increased security for casual and sessional academics? 
' describe the precariat as those who feel their lives and identities are disjointed, who cannot build careers or incorporate leisure into their lives in sustainable, meaningful ways. Youth, women, those with disabilities and migrants are most affected, but almost everybody is at risk.'  Professor Guy Standing

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