Being Casual about Our Teachers. Understanding More about Sessional Teachers in Law

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Being Casual about Our Teachers. Understanding More about Sessional Teachers in Law

Jill Cowley1


The literature (and data from other sources) confirm that over the past few decades, there has been a significant growth in the numbers of sessional (casual) staff employed in universities in Australia and other parts of the world. The increased casualisation has been across all universities, faculties and schools. Despite this growth there has been very little research undertaken to find out more about sessional academics. This paper concentrates on sessional academics in law schools in Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific and attempts provide a ‘snapshot’ of sessional law academics by asking, ‘Who are our sessional teachers in law (practitioners or postgraduate students)?’ and, ‘How do they contribute to the legal education of our students and how much teaching do they do?’. Understanding more about our sessional teachers is an important first step in a process by which we might devise more appropriate training and support to ensure the quality of our law schools’ teaching and our students’ learning.


There is widespread consensus that over the past few decades there has been a greater use of, sessional (sometimes called part-time, non-continuing or casual) academic staff in universities across Australia, North America and the United Kingdom.2 In Australia this belief is supported by figures obtained from the Australian Government,3 which are further corroborated by a Canadian study,4 which reports that,

In Australia, the number of academic staff employed on a part-time basis as a share of total academic employment rose from just over 9% in 1990 to nearly 20% by 2001.5
Figures obtained from New Zealand Government sources covering the period 2000 - 2008,6 however, reveal a much more complicated pattern with a slight decrease in employment both full-time equivalent and part-time academic staff. The ratio of part-time to full-time appears steady at 36 per cent to 64 per cent.
The employment of sessional staff is acknowledged to have many benefits7 but it does impose a cost on full-time staff, who invariably need to administer and supervise their work. Further, it creates the potential for gender inequity and threats to academic freedom. Importantly, it can also lead to a diminution in the quality of teaching and learning in universities. This applies to all faculties including law. A diminution in the teaching quality in law schools is, of course, undesirable for many reasons primarily concerned with the learning of students, but it also affects university administrators who are sensitive to auditing ‘failure’ resulting from external regulators requiring them to ‘perform quality’.8 It is a live issue for many legal educators, including the Council of Australian Law Deans, who recently adopted a set of quality standard measures which acknowledges that law schools’ responsibilities to sessional teaching staff given the role that they play in the delivery of law programs throughout Australia.
4.6 Part time and casual teaching staff

4.6.1 The law school has defined the role and responsibilities of all staff, including part time and casual teachers who contribute to the delivery of the law course, and the responsibilities of the law school to those teachers.9

Issues such as gender inequality and threats to academic freedom could (and should) be pursued at greater length elsewhere. The concern for this paper is more focussed on the quality of teaching and learning in our law schools and is an argument for a greater understanding about the sessional academics that we employ in our law schools. This should lead to the provision of appropriate administrative arrangements and quality training of sessional legal academics.
What measures can we take to ensure quality legal education? First, it seems obvious that appropriate administrative accommodations are made for all sessional staff given their numbers and the important role they play in higher education. Second, all academics benefit from training which includes an introduction to the scholarship of teaching and learning in higher education.
Training can increase the extent to which teachers adopt a Student Focus...Without the support of training, teachers may move in the opposite direction and reduce the extent to which they adopt a Student Focus. A Student Focus approach is known to be associated with students taking a deep approach to a greater extent, and hence to improved quality of student learning outcomes... Without the support of training no such positive change in student learning is evident.10
It is further argued that the greatest benefit comes when that training is situated within the discipline. The provision of situated training is consistent also with Mick Healey’s view when he wrote that,

It is important, therefore, that the scholarship of teaching in higher education is

not divorced from the content of the discipline being taught. As Rice (1995, p. vi)

notes: “improvement of teaching needs to be rooted in the intellectual substance of the field”.11

Part of this placement in context is knowing more about the sessional teachers that we employ. The work of Anne Junor12 and her creation of a typology of sessional staff is most informative here. She divided casual academics into several categories including postgraduate students (called Academic Apprentices (AA)), experts from outside the university (Outside Industry Experts (OIE), Retirees (R) and other Casual Academics (CA), who are ‘various groups whose main work lay outside the university’.13 According to her study of 1337 casual academics and general staff from five universities, those casual workers who hold no other employment (CAOs) account for nearly 30 per cent of the whole. Most relevant to law schools, are the AAs, OIEs and Rs. Their combined numbers in Junor’s study were 564 out of a total of 1337, which is a little over 42 per cent of the whole,14 of which AAs account for over one third. But her study looks at universities in totum: our interest is more specific. One question for this study is, therefore, whether AAs account for the same proportion of sessional law academics. The evidence we have about our sessional staff has been largely anecdotal, but there is a general belief that there is significant difference in the profile of sessional teachers between the more generalist disciplines and the professions such as medicine and law and that AAs do not account for the same proportion of our staff in law schools.
Understanding more about our sessional law teachers is an important first step in a process by which we might devise more appropriate training and support to ensure the quality of our law schools’ teaching and our students’ learning and yet it is not information that is routinely gathered.

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