The experience of casual teachers at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Following on from my blog yesterday, I’m sharing the second article I prepared for @SydneyCon students before the strikes last week, so they would understand why we’re striking, and perhaps even join us on the picket line to ask for better working conditions for the teachers which we argue are better learning conditions for them.

Students play in support of staff on the second day of #USydStrike action last week.

Since going through a raft of (“voluntary”) redundancies in 2020 as part of Sydney University’s response to the pandemic (despite the fact that redundancies are expensive and that it made a profit both years), our workforce at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music has become increasingly casualised. When in 2021 I ran workplace meetings at the Con to find out what people were most concerned about, working conditions and workloads were constantly at the top (as I’d have expected), and the conditions and wage theft of casual teachers at the Con were central to these concerns.

So, my second explainer for Con students was on the precariousness of the careers of their casual teachers. And with this one, I spoke to a group of my colleagues at the Con who are employed casually, so their voice could really be heard.

Hi! We’re more than half of your teachers, here at the Con!

You might be surprised how many of your lecturers and tutors at the Con are employed as “casuals”, and how precarious our work is. We wrote to some of our casual lecturer colleagues here at the Con to gather their own experiences anonymously. Every teacher we spoke to has a negative experiences working at the Con:

Although I have taught at the Con for years, I have no guarantee of work next year, or that relationships that I’ve developed with students will be ongoing.

Casual lecturer, SCM

More than half of the lecturers at the Con are employed like this. You know many of us, often taking tutorials in harmony or AP, marking your assignments in musicology subjects, or even as your 1-to-1 principal study teacher, teaching you performance or composition. 

Our work is no more secure than a casual shift worker at your local supermarket or fast food joint, even though we have extensive training and expertise.

As a casual (at the Con) I have in the past spent more than 3 months chasing over $5,000 in unpaid work, including being told I had already been paid for some of it when this was not the case. Multiple times my queries went unanswered for weeks at a time.

Casual tutor, SCM

We really need your support!

You may assume that we, your tutors in musicology or harmony and analysis subjects, are paid for keeping up with the course content, communicating with you, and preparing. In actual fact, this is simply not the case:

As a casual tutor my rate of pay for a one hour tutorial as outlined in the EA only covers two hours of associated working time, which I have to use for student consultation and “contemporaneous marking” on top of preparation for teaching. I need to watch the weekly lectures in order to be able to discuss the content with students, but in many units that eats up the full two hours, meaning that doing the readings, going over my class agenda and responding to students’ emails are all performed unpaid

Casual marker, SCM

An argument that has been made recently by the university management is that many of us casual academics actually *enjoy* this kind of occasional work, as it supplements our main work, working in our “industry”. While this idea is contentious in other fields, it’s certainly not true at all in music, where gigs are often difficult for us to get, arts grants are even harder, and teaching provides the most secure work available – even though it can be cut by the Con any semester without notice.

Here at the Con, we casuals often feel like second class citizens, despite the fact that we have PhDs and are highly respected in our fields:

Casual teaching staff at the Conservatorium are treated as second-class citizens. We don’t get paid to attend “all staff” meetings (yet we’re very welcome to attend for free). We don’t get any support to do research (yet we’re encouraged to submit our publications for inclusion in annual reports). We spend the whole summer not knowing whether we’ll be invited back, so we naturally feel grateful when the next offer does arrive. And that’s the problem: they know we’re passionate about the work we do, so they can get away with mistreating us.

Casual UoS coordinator, SCM

This is about you, too!

Some of us Con casual teachers have worked more than a decade, teaching every semester, without any guarantee of work or even a paid sick day off. We get no paid holidays. And as the recent wage theft cases at USyd have shown, we are often not properly paid for the work that we do. We also really care about the impact this is having on YOUR education. One of our colleagues told us:

I am worried about the quality of music education and the pressure put on casual staff members to fill the gap due to the lack of permanent staff. As a causal staff member at the Con I’m constantly battling for my basic right to be paid for the hours I work, without any of the benefits of a permanent position.

Casual teacher, SCM

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