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Teaching only positions

By Lucy Tartan - posted Friday, 22 January 2010

We've changed our banking arrangements recently and what with one thing and another I have been slow cleaning up the transfer of direct debits to the new accounts. I just did the last one this morning - NTEU fees. And I came damn close to resigning my membership in the process - not only because the website is the worst organised and slowest loading in the entire modern world - but because of the unbelievable fact that the senior executive of the union is flatly opposing the introduction of ongoing teaching-only appointments.

If what's reported in this article by Bernard Lane is accurate (and there's no reason to think otherwise) then it seems to me that the union has pretty much lost sight of the most basic objectives of trade unionism, i.e. to use solidarity and collective bargaining to improve the working conditions of the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the industry. Those being casual academics.

The NTEU does have some sort of department aimed at representing the interests of casuals, but now that push is coming to shove I think the fundamental tokenism, or at least ineffectuality, of this gesture is revealed.


Lane quotes McAlpine as saying "A teaching-only academic is an oxymoron". WTF. WTF. WTF. What does this say about the union's opinion of the work done by casual/sessional/short term fixed contract academics? Doesn't he know about the excremental theory of graduate education?

The implied suggestion that research activity is necessary for effective teaching is a red herring. I think it's debatable that it is, personally, given the stupidity of many of the current measures of research activity now in use. But, in humanities at least, the casual staff who are now currently employed on a teaching only basis (and upon the steady supply of whose labour the viability of the current system absolutely depends) are almost without exception also engaged in research. They're just not being paid to do it. Which is of course an issue.

But I'm not convinced it is as urgent and pressing an issue for the union to concern itself with, when the actual employment conditions of casuals are so unbelievably exploitative and insecure. I have to wonder if the union has asked its sessionally employed members at the unis considering industrial action whether they would like to be able to apply for ongoing teaching-only positions.

From the article again: “‘If it was about casuals and they wanted to offer them a more secure form of appointment, that's one thing,’ said Michael Thompson, NTEU president at Sydney. ‘(But) when we discussed it with them last week, they were for advertising teaching-only positions.’” Again, WTF is this supposed to mean?

I've only ever been in one other union - the SDA. Retail is another industry with a permanently high proportion of casual staff. The SDA looked after casuals and didn't treat them as second-class members of the workforce. The contrast is really striking.

As far as the motives of the university executives who are pressing for the introduction of teaching-only positions are concerned, of course it's right to assume the worst. But that doesn't mean that the interests of the administration can't coincide with the interests of the workers at the bottom of the food chain.


I stayed in the union for now, but if industrial action is to be taken at La Trobe I will have to reconsider.

Update: today's news looks slightly better.

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First published on the author's blog Sorrow at Sills Bend on May 1, 2009. Best Blogs 2009 is run in collaboration with Club Troppo.

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About the Author

Lucy Tartan blogs at Sorrow at Sills Bend.

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