Friday, October 19, 2012

A disturbing new job market trend...

I have been keeping tabs on the local academic job market. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes just out of curiousity, sometimes just because I haven't yet taken the leap to unsubsribing from all those academic mailing lists.

Just in case you were wondering, the job market in Australia is terrible. Think about it: a nation of only 24 million (or thereabouts); an ageing population; and a post-school qualification rate of less than 60%. Post-school includes an incredible robust "vocational" (tradespeople and the like) eduction sector. It is also a well known fact that you earn more as a tradie than many a university graduate.

I digress.

So, we have few people going to university in the first instance and this number is declining over time. There are approximately 40 universities in Australia, each covering largely the same material. Think Law, Medicine, Arts and Social Sciences, Engineering, Science, and maybe a few other specialty areas. Pick you discipline and do the maths.

No wonder there are so many Australians skulking about in universities abroad - it's what you have to do if you ever want to get a job. Some ex-pats are happy to be free from the shackles of parochialism and live happily ever after in their new locations. Others pine for the summer sun and the decent coffee and apply for every  job they can back "home".

Now, added to the mix, is an even more alarming trend within the higher ed sector here - teaching only positions. Teaching-only positions have been the scourge of workplace negotiations for some time. The union has fought the encroachment of this as best they can. And rightly so. Teaching only positions are a death knell when you operate wihin a promotion system based on research success.

Let me explain: a standard academic position in Australia is roughly (depending on which institution you work at) meant to be (by which I mean, rarely is in practice) 40%  teaching, 40% research and 20% administration. There are many complex workload formulas around to explain how this division might accomodate the diverse practices of academics. I don't know anyone who is really happy with the way their workload is calculated. It would seem as though administrators are always overburdening academics, and academics are always pushing administrators. In a perfect world of course, you woud simply have teaching days and research days and one day a week to attend meetings and do committee work all within the standard 35 hour week (yes, I did say 35 hours - it might be up to 38 hours in some places though).

The reality of course is incredibly different. Academis work around the clock on teaching preparation, responding to student emails/requests for extensions etc and marking. What little research they do is squeezed in outside of the working week, when they feel they are "allowed" to ignore the demands of students and other administrative requirements. Needless to say of course, the demands of administration, under the typical workload model, involve long and tedious commitee meetings and endless rounds of paperwork.

Yet when it comes to promotion, academics are usually judged by their research output. While some promotion processes have recently introduced different categories (ie teaching, research, administration) to their promotion criteria (after the union insisted), it remains to be seen what a "teaching only" promotion would look like. Just how much "approval" would you have to get from your students to pass muster? What "innovations" must you introduce into the classroom? How would performance really be judged, and by whom?

Yes folks, teaching only positions are a minefield. Yet they are becoming far more common.

The general gist is: universities are trying to get away with highering "cheap" staff ie lower level staff on teaching only contracts, and because of their teaching focussed role, they will never cost the university more because they will never get promoted (I am paraphrasing somewhat...I am sure the union is more subtle and eloquent in their analysis). Insidiousness at its worst.

Despite years of hard fought negotiations over the use of teaching-only positions, workload calcuations and the promotion process, I have noticed that there is a new "teaching-only" position advertised ever week. Universities here are also increasingly using "teaching-only" options as part of redundancy packages. That is, if you agree to go quietly (or in some cases, are forced) you can still have a job - you just won't be doing any resarch.

The irony of course is that, whether this is mentioned in selection criteria or not for any advertised teaching only positions, is that you will still be expected to have a track record of research in your field of expertise. If the university doesn't mention it, the selection process itself will make it a default category - there will be so many candidates with outstanding track records that only the best will get interviewed. I also believe that having a PhD (or other postgradaute qualification) in the area is also a requirement.

So you have to have a research qualification for a teaching only job. Now there is some fucked up university logic for you.


  1. It's the same in the UK - we have the accursed 'Tutorial/Teaching Fellows' which are popping up everywhere, short-term appointments with enormous teaching loads and no research time at all built in. Vile stuff.

  2. The further back you look (in the UK), the nastier it gets: the tutorial/teaching fellow positions only started to appear in 2006/7 after the big influx of an extra £3 million pounds plus into the sector, which partly went to improve staff salaries but mainly to double and triple VC's salaries. Tutorial/teaching fellow positions were invented at that time as a way of getting temporary cover of teaching at a lower rate, lower than the permanent teaching + research staff who'd just had pay rises, that is.

    There are also rumors of long-term, permanent staff being forced onto teaching-only contracts because their research isn't seen to be good enough or there isn't enough of it. I've not seen this happen formally, though it's common practice to dish out more teaching to those seen to be less productive research-wise. Both are even more cruel than the tutorial/teaching fellows, I think.

    1. VC salaries, oh dear yes. Since when were $2million salaries for VC's justified? What happened to universities being a place for researchers to do research, not admin? A place of learning instead of a profiteering enterprise?

  3. Hi WTF, at my physical sciences discipline, I believe the academic's administration workload is as high as 30%. Senior academics routinely deliver 70-80 hours total workload per week just to cover the three key performance indicators.

    The university, though receiving incredible value from their academics, was still not satisfied. Marking normally done by TA's was recently squeezed back into the academics' existing workload for no additional pay. Suddenly the hourly rate for stocking shelves in ALDI is looking really good!

    A similar kind of magical thinking is at play here:
    "I get to be my own boss here." Really?
    "I'm so passionate about research, there's nowhere else I'd rather be."
    "In a week I spend 40 hours on teaching/admin, 5-10 hours writing grants and maybe 10 hours on actual research. BUT THE RESEARCH PART IS TOTALLY WORTH IT!"

  4. The trend is the same in Canada. Unis started hiring 'teaching only' positions about 5 years ago. This practice creates a two-tiered department: those who are 'only' teachers (6-7 courses/y), and those who are 'real' researchers (~2 courses/y).

    A recent book took the idea even further and suggested creating 'teaching universities', where faculty would teach 8 courses a year ( The authors feel the 40-40-20 model (research/teaching/service) is reducing the effectiveness of ugrad education. They must really believe that only 40% of our time is actually spent on teaching!

  5. Wow! I had no idea the whole "teaching only" thing was so wide-spread. Well, if I'd stopped and pondered for a minute I would have realised that these things don't just happen spontaneously somewhere like Australia - there has to be an international push that starts any shifts in policy. But yes, teaching only positions have become much more ubiquitous, and in some instances, staff are being pushed into those roles when the university goes on a round of cost-cutting. I couldn't imagine anything more humiliating.

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