For some reason, my Facebook feeds have been sending me a lot of reading about the state of academic employment in the US recently. A substantial number of these posts seem to talk about the experiences of so-called non-tenure staff.
Called variously “part-time staff” (UK), “adjunct faculty” (USA), and “casuals” (Australia), non-permanent teaching staff are an increasingly significant feature of higher education environments across the globe (Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley 2009, Anderson 2007). Estimates of the prevalence of part-time staff vary, with some areas such as South America reporting that as much as 80% of lecturing staff on part-time contracts globe (Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley 2009; Anderson 2007), while reports of prevalence in the United Kingdom range from 25% to 50% of teaching staff (Anderson 2007:112).
The data on the presence of part-time lecturing staff in higher education institutions impacts on our understanding of the role which such staff may be assuming (Anderson 2007). Initial conversations suggest that there are multiple categories of part-time staff who contribute in a range of ways to institutional teaching. While these categories have been explored in the international literature (Blackwell, Channell and Williams 2001, Anderson 2007, Husbands and Davies 2000), they have not been systematically examined in the South African context. This lack of understanding of the roles and experiences of part-time staff has further negative consequences for the support and development opportunities offered to this category of staff (Bryson and Blackwell 2006).
In the South African context, while there are confident estimates of permanent lecturing staff (Koen 2003, Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley 2009), estimates of numbers and dispersal or non-permanent staff are less certain. Although the Council for Higher Education recently released national estimates of part-time lecturing staff (CHE 2011), these figures should be viewed with caution, given the challenges posed by enumerating such a group. Attempts to enumerate part-time staff face multiple challenges pertaining to, among others, inconsistent statistical data from institutions, institutional resistance, and logistical difficulties (Husbands and Davies 2000). To date, attempts to comprehensively enumerate the part-time teaching staff at the institution which I work have faced considerable challenges, which casts at least some doubt on the accuracy of national data.
Given the rapid and in some cases significant changes to South African higher education institutions, the impact of such part-time staff members on teaching must be investigated. In order to do this, action will need to be taken on multiple levels. At an institutional level, human resources administration and recording procedures will need to be reviewed and how these procedures are enacted within individual departments will need to be understood. Additionally, departments might need to regularly obtain data on who actually teaches, not convenes, specific courses. This data could be aggregated at a faculty level and compared regularly with HR data. Such comparisons might provide an opportunity to identify instances where additional support might be required.