Out of the Frying Pan and into the Toaster: the casual who coveted the fractional appointment

Anyone who has followed my blog would probably be aware that it has been a hell of a year. Among other things, I have gone from being a long-term sessional academic, to a professional staff member employed on a coveted fractional appointment. I am privileged enough to be able to continue to work within the sector I have spent so much of my time involved with and dedicated to. I have invested a lot into this sector and enjoy the challenges it presents.

In the past year I have established a profile for myself within this space. I have been the lead investigator on two successful grant applications for 2015. I work bloody hard, and invest much of my emotional and physical energy into making sure that my work is done efficiently, transparently, and to the highest possible standard.

Be that as it may, my contract is ending on the 31st of December. My position is going to be advertised, and I am going to apply for it. This isn’t a reflection on my capabilities, and was not the decision of anyone ‘up the chain’ from me to. Rather it is an interpretation of a clause within the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement that when my current funding ends, it is expected that my job will be advertised internally to my institution. Regardless of my performance, and ongoing responsibilities. My one comfort is that this situation is not unique to me, and affects many of my colleagues, as well as many across the sector.

To adopt the parlance of our time I am more than aware of my own privilege. I have had access to sick days, and family leave when my daughter has been unwell. I was able to reduce my hours in order to deal with the illness and subsequent death of my Dad. I have access to a computer in an open-plan office, and get a lot of satisfaction and meaning from my job. But much of my time recently has been absorbed not only with processing the death of my Dad, a husband who is unable to work due to a back injury, and a 5-year-old daughter who selfishly insists on eating every bloody night, on top of that I have been running the bureaucratic gamut of trying to ensure all of my ducks are in a row for my impending job application.

Most frustratingly, my job has yet to be advertised, and with the end date of my contract looming, it is appearing more and more unlikely that my new contract (were I successful in my application for the job I currently do) would be in place before the end of the year. There are a few side effects of this (other than sheer inconvenience) that I will outline:

  • As my position is only being advertised internally, I will need to be on a current contract in order to apply. If the appropriate measures are not put in place before end of year, the possibility exists that I would become ineligible to apply for my own job. The job that my colleague and I wrote successful grant application for. For the project that with our combined efforts we made a success.
  • If my contract was to end without me having secured ongoing employment, I will need to remove all of the files from my computer, in order to format it and return it to the Information Technology people. Likewise I will need to return swipe cards, and empty out the space in which I have been working. Effectively I would need to erase any evidence of my existence, only to bring it all back in again if and when my contract was reinstated.
  • I will lose any accrued leave entitlements (sick leave, long service leave), as any contracts you have need to run back-to-back in order for these to carry forward into the next year or period.
  • The project I am working on currently, into which I have invested so much emotional energy, would be in jeopardy without someone to continue the work or preparing for project activities ongoing.
  • In my unique circumstance I am afraid to reduce my hours or take too much advantage of the flexibility afforded to me following the death of my Dad, because a part of me worries that it will reflect badly on my work ethic and impact my chances of getting my job again next year.

People ‘in the know’ have advised me to pursue an extension on my contract, which would allow me to continue working, while the lumbering cogs of bureaucracy tumble into place. This will address some of the above issues (such as being ineligible to apply for my own position) however this only delays the stress, and doesn’t negate it entirely. An extension on my contract offers no guarantees as to my employment status ongoing, it only buys the institution time to fulfil their obligations while allowing my important work to continue. It is a band-aid, it isn’t a cure.

As I have stated before, I don’t think these decisions have come about as the result of any one individual’s cruelty or poor judgment. Rather I think they are the result of business decisions, decisions which take into account bottom lines and balancing cost centres, and not valuing the knowledge and experience of the staff you already have. Their personal circumstance. The emotional and psychological impact of precarious working conditions. Higher Education is a business, and while business has been better (the push for deregulation has suffered a setback);  it is still a money-making enterprise.

I was asked by someone, in a completely innocuous fashion, why my contracts should run consecutively. Why, it was posited to me, couldn’t I in fact start back again in Autumn session? There was no malice in this question, and my understanding was that it was in response to a ‘business case‘ type scenario. The appropriate boxes needed to be ticked, the right questions answered with the right key words, and HR would gloss smoothly over my position before examining the next. However the fact that question was even asked was honestly a shock to me. The scenario offered was that at some Australian institutions (thankfully not mine) the regular practice is to end contracts on the 15th of December, and not start then up again till mid way into the next month. The justification being that across a whole university, the savings are immense. No paid concessional days. No carry over of leave entitlements. This was explained to me in a matter-of-fact way that perversely makes sense in a literal ‘money comes in, money goes out’ way, but all I can see is the human cost. The emotional cost. The angry, disillusioned, and frankly tired staff who have spent the year working hard and achieving objectives and managing budgets, all to have to jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the employment process (complete with rigorous selection criteria and three-people intensive interview panels), all in order to continue on with the work they were already doing. And they don’t even get a bloody paid day off for Christmas.

I was sitting in my open-plan office today, trying-not-to-but-not-quite-avoiding-to overhear the conversations of some of my colleagues in this same space. They were talking about the leave they were planning to take over the new year period to spend time with their kids. These same colleagues have been busy putting up displays of tinsel and decorations on their cubicle walls. Leaving their mark in this shared space. At the same time I am receiving weekly emails reminding me of the end of my contract, reminding me that my place in this sector is temporary, contingent upon me yet again jumping through the bureaucratic hoops and again proving my worthiness. There is every chance I will be continuing my job next year, mostly because I am damn good at it. But that isn’t 100%. I don’t dare pin my tinsel to the cubicle wall in case I need to again pack it away in a month’s time, put it in the boot of my car, and take it home.

I think about the plight of sessional academics working in higher education currently. It was only six months ago that I was the exploited casual. Then it happened, I got the contracted appointment I had wanted for so long, with all of its associated perks and entitlements. I was and remain grateful for that opportunity. However now that the end of the year is fast approaching I am feeling that familiar unease that I don’t know what the next year will bring. I am experiencing again the itch, the compulsion to go above and beyond, to prove time and time again that I am worthy of working in the sector, that my ideas are valuable, that I am valuable. However rather than the hot-oil immersion of casual labour (13 intense weeks of teaching followed by months of radio silence, or inconsistent research opportunities), I am experiencing the slow burn of the short-term contract employee. The closer it comes to the time of my contract expiring the more I am sweating it out, my anxiety rising, the assurance I took in my own competence not shielding me from the growing feelings of unease. I sit at my desk and write and email and make plans for the coming year, all the time thinking: “…but what if I don’t get my job back?”

Keep me in your thoughts, along with all of your professional and academic colleagues on short-term contracts. One of the people you share a cubicle wall with in the office, or see in line at the coffee shop, or share a joke with at the copier, might not be a successful applicant for their own job. They might not be successful in getting the grant money to fund their own position or might bugger up the interview process… they are probably feeling the heat right now and who knows; they might well be toast.

2 thoughts on “Out of the Frying Pan and into the Toaster: the casual who coveted the fractional appointment

  1. I feel your pain. Don’t let the bastards get you down, no matter how much you are hurting. I’ve been in the same position, over and over, and not been retained for a job I started. It hurts. But, given that most of those employed in academia are now casual (fixed term or sessionals) this isn’t something that we can argue with an individual in HR; it’s systemic, and needs to be advertised. One day, I’m guessing, someone will ask that question of a VC when they are in a very public place and have nowhere to hide their ‘dirty little secrets’ about casualisation.

  2. Yes, yes and yes. Thanks for sharing this, and to Former Academic for your response – get in there and be heard asking those ‘dirty little questions’. I’ve just found your blog but all of what you say is so familiar. It also made me think about how all of us in insecure employment are so often ignorant of the fact that we are actually a ‘critical mass’, but there are systems and circumstances that put us all in competition with each other – you have a 12 month contract so you’re better off than me – and yet the fears, the worries, the stresses and the damned intense hard work surely put us all on the same team? @amlev2

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