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Dec 9, 2009

Why I resigned from Melbourne Uni Council

Tammi Jonas explains why she resigned from the University of Melbourne Council, after she was asked to teach a seminar for free despite having been paid in the past.

On Monday, I resigned from the University of Melbourne Council in protest against the University’s exploitation of its casual labour force, which is largely made up of postgraduate students. I myself was asked to teach a seminar for free that I had previously been paid to present, and chose to use my own example to fight for the many others who are all too frequently put in this untenable position.

You can read my resignation in yesterday’s Crikey, or else on my blog, as well as the email inviting me to teach for free. The withdrawal of my labour from an exploitative system is a strategic and ideological choice I started to make a few years ago when I opted out of tutoring in the Arts Faculty, where remuneration and conditions are woeful, as they are at so many Australian universities.

So a few facts: casual staff are delivering about 50% of the university sector’s teaching, Data from DEEWR also shows that there are more women than men employed as casuals, which has particular implications for women with children, who we know are still doing the lion’s share of caring for children. Casual staff have no paid leave and no job security, let alone a clear career pathway. As the sector grapples with understanding how it will replenish its ageing workforce, it continues to employ people under casual contracts with no plan to integrate them into the future workforce. Meanwhile, some 60% of Australia’s PhD graduates leave the sector entirely, a figure that has been climbing steadily for many years.

So what does all of this mean to the average postgrad who thinks, ‘great, I’d love to teach!’ There is great disparity in wages and conditions between institutions – I’m assured that Melbourne University is by no means the worst offender.

Many tutors attend lectures as part of their preparation for tutorials, but at most institutions this is unpaid. The Head of the School of Political and Social Sciences at Melbourne has informed his casual staff that “Tutorials are not designed to go over lecture content – they should be capable of standing alone. Where they are merely going over lecture content, they are not doing what they are designed to do.”

This is a total furphy – of course tutorials are designed to support the lecture content, though not to slavishly ‘go over’ it. Would he be happy if the lecture that week was on racism in the media and the tutorial was on feminism in India? This same head of school also asserts that there is no need for face-to-face meetings between subject coordinators and tutors, and that the “LMS [an online space for learning materials, with discussion forums] seems a suitable format in which staff can communicate with each other.”

This is his justification for not paying for meetings – whilst tutors spend MORE UNPAID time on the LMS. Tutors are also often asked to give guest lectures without pay, sometimes ‘lucky’ to receive a bottle of wine. A lecture can take up to a week to prepare when you’re doing it for the first time, so even when it is paid at the rate of 3 hours per hour of delivery, it’s totally insufficient.

Many tutors are not provided with any office space in which to work or consult with students, and those who are must share an office, which can be very awkward if meeting with a distressed student. Those without offices meet with students in cafes or other public places, which is even more awkward with a distressed student.

Many casual staff talk about ‘semester bleed’, whereby they must attend to issues around academic misconduct and students contesting their marks well after their contract has finished. And a number of universities don’t even pay for end of semester marking, which can take dozens of hours to complete. It is unconscionable that institutions whose very raison d’etre is to contribute to the global public good are exploiting their least powerful members. The old ‘we don’t do it for the money’ argument has worn thin.

I say no matter WHY we do it, they’re going to have to pay us.

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4 comments

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4 thoughts on “Why I resigned from Melbourne Uni Council

  1. Bogdanovist

    I’ve been through this system, I spent almost fours years as a post-grad doing teaching duties, in science though not humanities (so perhaps there are some differences in experiences). I have to agree with much of this, except with the basic notion that the pay rates are too low. I’d argue that the rates themselves are, for the most part, reasonable. On the other hand, the conditions are generally poor, with the lack of entitlements that come with casual contracts.

    In my view it comes down to a basic misallocation of priorities in the system. Teaching is still seen too much as a neccesary annoyance, which leads to permanent staff of loading it onto postgrads whenever possible, and the postgrads accepting whatever work they can get, since without extra income from teaching PhD candidates recieve a sub-poverty line income. While there are many excellent teachers amongst PhD’s and permanent staff, there are also plenty who are terrible, and the systems generally doesn’t know or care about the difference. I found that quality control was non-existant when it came to teaching, and the training and professional development completely inadequate.

    Given that the system doesn’t seem to put much emphasis on the teaching outcomes, it’s no surprise that it doesn’t really care about the teachers. If you fixed the first part, I think the second would naturally follow.

  2. corbie68

    Totally agree with you Tammi.

    I work in a library at one of the bigger universities and know some of my colleagues who have worked for the faculty of arts as casual lecturers/ tutors/ markers get paid significantly less in terms of their hourly rate for their work in the faculty than for the lowest casual jobs in the library, sometimes they were not even paid at all for their academic work.

    The whole university system needs a bit of an overhaul and I think more of a focus on making teaching something inherently valuable in itself, would be a great start. Currently the structure is proliferating positions in administration and pouring money into pursuits that seem to be an extraneous burden on the budget, staff, particularly in service delivery are low on the list of priorities.

    Bogdanovist, I do tend to see from where I’m sitting that the postgrad students/ casual tutors for science and technology get a better deal than those in arts, there are a probably a number of cultural and budgetary reasons for that.

  3. Catherine Rytmeister

    Postgrads and early career researchers (recent PhD graduates) are carrying huge teaching loads as casual and fixed-term employees, while carrying out their research in their own time (which is, unless they have a PG scholarship) unpaid. They do this in order to make themselves competitive in the next round of casual/short term job offers, and in the hope of one day making it into a continuing position as an academic. PhD research is essentially training for an academic position, and the host university will usually get the research “points” and associated funding for any publications, as well as for completion of the PhD. This amounts not only to exploitation of research outcomes, but also to unpaid training – in any other industry it would be illegal.

    We are facing a world-wide shortage of academics, and what do Australian universities do? Casualise, exploit and provide appalling conditions and high workloads to the very people who will be needed to form the future academic workforce of the nation. Smart. Really smart.

  4. marvel

    I’m sure if the current and recently ejected teaching staff of the Arts faculty were to list their complaints about governance and management at the University of Melbourne – it would make ‘War and Peace’ look like the front page of the Herald-Sun (with only the pictures). Everyone is getting shafted there: students and teaching staff, but there is no mechanism for democratic change.

    So, good on you Tammi Jonas! If the other members of the Council had half as much ‘guts’ as you, and any idea about what a real university should be like, then they would have walked out too. Looks like we have to watch the Glyn Davis soap opera play out to the final tragic scene. Who are the losers here?