Sessional Teaching: the pain and the promise
Maybe it’s the time of the year. If you’re in Brisbane, the flowering jacarandas give it away: end of semester exams and marking.
The frustration of marking assignments that seem to suggest that you are a lousy teacher (how else can the students get it so wrong?) and the realisation that you don’t get paid for the hours of work required to engage with the assignments and offer adequate constructive criticism, seems to encourage a certain introspection. My old mate Dogpossum has a lengthy rant about the role of sessional teaching in higher education, and hardly more encouraging is Glen at Event Mechanics who is seriously thinking of pulling the pin on an incipient academic career. And Catherine related similar frustrations here earlier this year.
On Wednesday the Group of Eight Universities released a presser (ignored by most of the MSM) about the expected increase in university enrolments over the coming decades.
Based on the ABS mid-range population projections, key findings include:
- The number of Australians requiring a place at university is expected to grow by an average of at least 10,000 per year over the coming decades – simply as a result of expected population growth;
- By 2026 the sector will need to accommodate an extra 194,000 domestic students than currently, assuming similar proportions of each cohort attend as at present. By 2036 this will grow to 304,000 extra students. By 2041 the figure will be 351,000 and by 2061 – over 500,000 extra;
- If higher education participation rates rise (and some states are well below average) there will be even more students wanting places than the numbers shown by these projections;
- Additional demand can be expected as people need to refresh and extend skills to continue to work in their chosen career, or to equip themselves for mid-life career change;
- Australia’s higher education sector faces particular challenges in terms of workforce renewal and expansion due to the ageing of the academic workforce. Replacing those who are moving towards retirement, as well as increasing academic staffing for the projected extra student load, are critical if Australia is going to be internationally competitive in research, teaching and learning.
These figures do not include the demand for fee-paying international places.
Add to this the suggestion that the demand for uni places increases in proportion to the downturn in jobs growth (as a recent article in the Higher Ed seems to confirm).
There are no prizes for guessing who is going to have to teach all these extra students. Most of the full-time academics I know are stretched to the limit, and increasingly the burden falls on under-qualified, often ill-prepared, and frequently desperate research higher degree students who, in spite of the best intentions and often a dedication to their craft that puts their tenured colleagues to shame, do not receive the support or facilities to teach adequately.
As Glen says, why put up with this shit when you could earn $100k working for a mining company?
The answer is that teaching is a vocation: those who want to teach will try to continue until the conditions become intolerable. Mel Gregg puts it this way: “I really want more diversity in my job, to be able to teach and learn from students and feel part of an ongoing project that has a collective outcome” (Good Trip). Teaching is rewarding in ways that aren’t covered by pay-scales, CV entries, or community service obligations.
That is not an excuse for sessional teachers to be exploited. The ARC recently announced $363 million in research funding to Australian universities. I don’t think that the figures exist, but a significant proportion of that research would only be possible because of the casual research assistants and sessional teachers who pick up the slack created by teaching buy-outs by the full-time (frequently tenured) staff.
It’s about time the higher education sector lifted its game in relation to its support of junior colleagues.