Business

"I'm a university lecturer but I'm struggling to make ends meet"

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Kate loves her job as a university lecturer, but the casualisation of her industry means she never knows how much work she'll get and how much money she'll get paid. This has forced her to choose "between buying fuel to drive to work or food for my children."

Video above: Jenny reveals how a career based on casual work has left her struggling to make ends meet. Full episode on SBS On Demand.

Opening my inbox, I see a message from Centrelink. I must enter an income estimate for the next financial year so my Family Tax Benefits can be calculated. But I don’t know what I will earn next month, so estimating my income a year ahead is a gamble.

If I underestimate my income, I risk an over-payment and a debt. If I overestimate my income, it won’t be rectified until I lodge my next tax return. My income is unpredictable. I am a casual university lecturer. I’ve taught in award winning programmes at Australia's leading universities where I’ve designed curricula and even helped train other casual staff, all while being casual myself. My situation is not unusual. Indeed casual workers now make up the majority of university staff. The National Tertiary Education Union recently released an analysis of the casualisation of workers at Victorian universities. It found over 60 per cent of university staff are on casual or fixed term contracts at all but one university. The figure reached over 70 per cent at the two oldest and most prestigious universities in the state. I have taught at both of those universities as well as a few others.

As a casual, I don’t know if I will be employed next semester and if so, for how many hours. Currently, I am paid for four hours of classes for two subjects over two days. I wanted more. That’s all that was available. That’s a total of $322 per week for the twelve week semester. That figure includes four hours of class time, all consultation time, all reading, all preparation of class materials and all marking. In reality each subject often requires a working day of preparation and student consultation each week in addition to the actual time in class. Being casual often means moving from one subject to a new one each semester so work done to prepare classes last year can rarely be recycled and updated. 

I receive my pay and sort through the most urgent expenses after buying food for my children. Sometimes there is very little left after groceries and fuel.

Marking student work is always time consuming and is increasingly done from home, online and at my own expense. Student assessment is central to maintaining the integrity of higher education. Suspected cases of plagiarism require extra hours of work to not only identify the plagiarism (plagiarism software only highlights patterns, humans must make the final decision) but to meet with the student and, where necessary, make a case to faculty. I once spent several days making a case about a suspected case of plagiarism at a university. All that work was unpaid. Any concerns about low standards at university should take into account the increased casualisation of university staff.

Last semester I taught nine hours over three days but the campus was 120kms away. The semester before that it was seven hours over two days 120kms away. One year, a university did not process my pay until May, so I went from early November to May with no income despite teaching since February. Luckily, I didn’t have children then. It’s normal to go from November to March with no pay. Casuals dread Christmas. I have, in the past, faced a choice between buying fuel to drive to work or food for my children.

At times in my career I’ve taught at universities with no desk or printing facilities for casual staff. That meant class materials were often printed at my own expense. Confidential student matters were discussed in corridors, or in empty tutorial rooms hoping no one interrupted. If students want to find their tutor outside class, they can’t. It feels unprofessional and it's disheartening to work like that. No work space means there was no sense of collegiality or connection to the university. Students benefit when their educators are well connected and in touch with the institution. Students benefit from stability and continuity. Staff benefit from the stability, a sense of belonging, and from the ability to plan their financial futures.

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Angela works 55 hours a week and still struggles to make ends meet and pay her mortgage.
Angela works 55 hours a week and still struggles to make ends meet and pay her mortgage.

I can’t budget, but I can ration. I receive my pay and sort through the most urgent expenses after buying food for my children. Sometimes there is very little left after groceries and fuel. My fast growing children need new school uniforms and new shoes. I don’t know when I will be able to buy those. But my car registration and insurance are also due and with no public transport options where I live, a car and fuel are essential. So that comes before fixing my hot water system, my broken sewer and my broken oven. Somewhere in there, I need to pay for everything else in life, from utilities and food to clothing. I’m not unique in all this. I know there are other casual workers across the higher education sector and beyond who are in similar, or worse, positions.

My story isn’t a sob story. I love my job. It is what I am trained to do and it’s an important job. But the reality of casualisation means I, and others like me, are separate from the economy. We stagnate. We don’t get mortgages or credit cards. We don’t stimulate local economies by purchasing things. At a recent school event mothers chatted about their favourite international destinations and their preferred locations in Hawaii and Fiji. I don’t envy them. But I was calculating if I had enough money for fuel to get home and have enough left over to buy bread for my children’s school lunches.

So I log in to my Centrelink account and start my income estimate for the next financial year. I’ll be optimistic. Casual staff are always optimistic and hoping that this is the last semester before landing a proper, permanent job.