Monday, 30 July 2012

Nepotism (and other networking strategies)

Like so many other casual academics I'm becoming frustrated enough to vocalise my concerns.  I am fully aware that I am entering very dangerous territory, previously chartered by so many other casuals, that will probably relegate me out into a situation similar to Alanna's.  We have now lost all of out facilities at our school - no desk, computers, phone or anywhere to complete our work and I have been making my thoughts on this situation known.  The last time I saw my Head of School he hardly made eye contact with me - after years of working together on projects for the school it would appear that my requests for a desk and computer are going to break that bond.  Fair enough, I'm sure he's under some pressure further up the chain to spend money on more 'visible,' or perhaps marketable facilities within the school (why bother with the teaching and research staff, you can't put photos of them on brochures or television ads).  Interestingly, this was brought up by two students from the University of Sydney on last week's Q&A program (you can click to the chapters on the right hand side of the video panel titled 'Value for Uni Fees' and 'Sydney University Cutbacks').  I thought Michael Spence's responses were very careful and he obviously is very suited to the role of Vice Chancellor - pleasing everyone and no one at the same time.  His answers only indicated that universities are large complex organisations that cost a lot of money to run and failed to answer the two students' questions.  However, Nicola Roxon's responses were the most disappointing - one student complained about increasing class sizes and she brought up the well-trodden statistics about increasing student numbers and first generation students.  Aren't you listening?!  We know the numbers are increasing - so how are you addressing this situation?  How are you improving standards to assist first generation students to graduate from their courses; by uncapping places and increasing class sizes?  I did, however appreciate Simon Sheikh's comments :

The fundamental challenge we face here is that we're corporatising our universities. Now, when you have a look at a university, if you’re an administrator like Michael is, he has to look at that and say, well, where’s my largest costs. The largest costs for almost every university in this country is still the staff base, so there [they] look. You know, let's get rid of the casual teachers teacher, let’s get rid of the markers. Problem is you then have your best and brightest academics spending less and less time doing what we want them to do and that’s research and teach not get stuck in these administrative questions. Now, there are some moments in life, some moments in public policy, where if you spend just a little bit more you get the gold plate version. You spend just a little bit more and you unlock the value of what you have already spent. So my view on this is that while I’m not sure about some of the changes Michael is making my view is that it really shouldn't be just up to him. We should be funding our education system more broadly, more adequately, so that we can unlock those returns on investments in the Asian century, a century where our skills an skills based economy is going to be absolutely crucial.        

Now, back to my original point - those furrowed looks from my Head of School.  In my particular school I think nepotism is rife.  Maybe this is the case for most schools?  Our current Head of School is a really nice person - a good person - mostly makes time for students and staff and will partake in a drink with anyone!  His only downfall is in his scholarly track record.  He has limited publications, no books and only a couple of projects that aren't necessarily 'significant.'  In comparison to his predecessors he has a lot less to stand on when it comes to representing the school at the Faculty or University level.  There is speculation that he got to his role (promoted from level C to E overnight) through his networking (...drinking) skills.  It is unlikely that another university would give him a Professor job title and therefore he is in some way indebted to the university... in other words, he is in no position to rock the boat.  Therefore, my rocking the boat does not bode well for him - he is left between a rock and a hard place and it is unfortunate that a desk (or lack thereof) is going to cause so much trouble.  For me, as well, my lack of engaging with the unspoken protocol of 'keep stum' (put up and shut up) is probably going to see my hours dwindle... like Alanna's....

I thought I was good at networking but networking in academia is a whole other complicated system - I guess it's just a reflection of the university's larger complex organisation.        


  1. Hi Sessional Academic,
    This kind of treatment of casual academic staff is indeed common. Most universities do have clauses in the Enterprise Agreements however requiring that casuals be provide with work facilities. If yours does, the NTEU should be able to help you enforce that. In a way this also helps out your HoS since when he has to justifiy it to bean counters he can say 'What can I do? The union required me to do it.'

  2. Hi Jane,

    Thanks for your comment - it is in our EBA under a kind of general description - I'll see if it has any weight! The Dean of our Faculty sent an email around yesterday that said:

    '.....the work commissioned by the Vice-Chancellor to improve the sessional staff experience across the University and acknowledges the significant and continued contribution that our sessional staff make to the work of the Faculty...'

    Is it too early to be optimistic that conditions might be about to improve?