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Contextualising Australian Academia

In 2008, the widely publicised Review of Australian Higher Education (Bradley et al. 2008), popularly known as the Bradley Review, was published by the Australian government. The review’s panel of ‘higher- education experts’ argued that Australian universities were facing major workforce shortages due to the ageing and impending retirement of much of the academic workforce (Bradley et al. 2008). This, they suggested, was exacerbated by a shortage of young, high-quality academics (Bradley et al. 2008; cf. May 2011).

In contrast, many academics have critiqued the burgeoning casualisa- tion of university teaching and research, arguing that younger, aspiring academics have few opportunities for career advancement in Australia and worldwide (Burgess et al. 2008; Gottschalk and McEachern 2010; Newfield 2008). University teaching, in particular, has become increasingly casualised, with recent estimates suggesting that about half of undergraduate teaching in Australia is now performed by casual staff (May et al. 2013a). More broadly, ‘full-time equivalent’3 casual academic employment is more than three times higher than it was in 1990, while there has been minimal growth in continuing and fixed-term academic employment (May et al. 2013a; see also Australia. Department of Education 2014a).

Social science research has pointed out the risks and challenges associated with casualisation, as well as significant disadvantages experienced by casual staff (May 2011). May et al. (2013a), for instance, find evidence of widespread frustration among casual teaching staff in regard to their prospects for career progression. Other issues faced by casual aca?demics include a ‘lack of access to basic facilities such as a desk and a computer, exclusion from collegial forums, high administrative burdens, feelings of isolation and poor communication from employers’ (May et al. 2013a, p. 261; see also Brown et al. 2010). Moreover, in their survey and interview-based study of academic casuals, Lorene Gottschalk and Steve McEachern (2010, p. 48) found that these staff, and teaching staff particularly, were frustrated and disillusioned by the realisation that the transition to a secure, full-time job was an ‘impossible dream’.

In discussions of academic precarity and permanency, gender and age are significant factors. In Australia, casual academics are disproportionately young and female: May (2011, p. 6) finds that 57 per cent of academic casuals are women, and that 52 per cent are aged 35 or younger. These are the same groups that are frequently considered to be underrepresented in more permanent positions (Jones and Lovejoy 1980; May 2011; for examples, see Australia. Department of Education 2014b; Bradley et al. 2008). Female academics tend to be employed at lower levels, for less pay, and are less likely to be in full-time employment than their male counterparts (Jones and Lovejoy 1980). Furthermore, the Australian academic workforce is a rapidly ageing one, with a high proportion of staff being in their mid-forties to mid-sixties, while academics in their twenties and thirties are comparatively rare (Hugo 2008).

Such trends are not unique to Australia (for example, see Barbezat and Hughes 2005; Sharff and Lessinger 1995), but they do have distinctive historical roots in this country. As Hannah Forsyth (2014) makes clear in her recent book exploring the history of Australian universities, these institutions have both egalitarian and elitist influences. The first universities were established in Australia in the early 1850s, and, beginning in 1881, they began to admit women, being among the first to do so worldwide (Forsyth 2014). Even before the First World War, women made up a high proportion of university enrolments: up to 50 per cent in some disciplines (Forsyth 2014, p. 10). Yet overall enrolments remained low, and universities contributed little to more widespread social mobility for women (Forsyth 2014). From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, when the number of university students was dramatically increasing, the proportion of female enrolments fell, as universities recruited males to the emerging ‘technological disciplines’ (Forsyth 2014, p. 40). In the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of second-wave feminism, female students and academics became more common in Australia (Forsyth 2014). Yet today, the

Australian academic workforce remains imbalanced in terms of gender (Hugo 2008).

The age profile of contemporary academia has also been shaped by Australia’s workforce history. Prior to the Second World War, the median age of Australian workers was 37 years (Hugo 2008, p. 14). Post-war increases in immigration and birth rates led to a decline in this figure (to 34 years in 1981) followed by a dramatic increase that continues to this day (to 40 years in 2014) (Australia. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2014b; Hugo 2008, p. 14). In short, the Australian workforce has aged considerably since the 1980s. Meanwhile, the expansion of universities in the 1960s and 1970s led to the large-scale employment of young academics from overseas (Hugo 2008). This resulted in a workforce that was, at the time, even younger than the national median (Hugo 2008). Following the 1970s, however, the availability of new academic positions in Australia decreased dramatically, leading to today’s ageing academic workforce (Hugo 2008). Thus, Australia’s contemporary academic workforce— and the location of aspiring academics within it—has distinct historical roots, related to but separate from those of other countries (Barbezat and Hughes 2005; Lopes and Dewan 2015; Sharff and Lessinger 1995).

 
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