Where are all the sessional staff?

OPINION: Cassandra Hood

Lecturer in Higher Education


Academic staff profiles have dramatically changed over the last 20 or so years with massively increasing numbers of sessional (i.e. casual) staff teaching as part-time tutors (including clinical), demonstrators and lecturers. Estimates put this staff number at as high as 40% and recent studies indicate that the majority of sessional staff are now employed sessionally.

Just released in Higher Education Research and Development is an integrated review of published evidence on professional development for sessional staff in Australian universities using the BLASST framework benchmarking criteria. Results were not promising.

Sessional staff have been found at times to not be:

  • aware of how their teaching fits within the topic/course or aligns with philosophical and pedagogical values
  • privy to their student evaluations
  • offered professional development
  • employed long enough to develop their teaching skills.

Whilst most sessional staff wanted to improve their teaching skills, the literature indicates that there is little support available to them to do this, even in the face of support from academic staff in continuing positions and academic development units.

At Flinders University we attempt to support sessional staff in their endeavours to improve teaching through the suite of workshops specifically designed for sessional staff (including demonstrators).  All of these workshops offered through the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching are open to sessional staff and information about them is widely circulate. These formal workshops provide opportunities supporting sessional staff to orient themselves to teaching and build upon their teaching skills. The format is unusual – formalised professional development for sessional staff is rare in other institutions. Our sessional staff workshop suite, as well as the option to have custom-created workshops facilitated within Colleges/study areas and online options have been available for a number of years. Yet numbers attending remain variable despite excellent evaluations from participants.

Our experience mirrors the research. The majority of sessional staff are not paid to attend professional development (PD) meaning they:

  • need to pay for it themselves, and
  • sacrifice time from other work commitments

to do so.

In our conversations with both sessional staff and educational leaders within the institution, CILT staff have identified some very clear issues that arise time after time:

  • many sessional staff are not informed by topic/course coordinators of the PD opportunities available to them nor are they encouraged to attend
  • they are frequently not going to paid to attend any PD opportunities (this is often quite explicit)
  • they are expected to sacrifice time from other non-teaching related employment to attend

Although there are some notable exceptions to these points are tutors and demonstrators from Science and Engineering.

How many more barriers will we put up for sessional staff to access professional development benefitting our students and institutional teaching quality?

In this time of significant change, Flinders University is actually well-equipped to lead the way in supporting our large numbers of sessional staff in quality university teaching. All that is needed is for those in positions of educational leadership to ‘bite the bullet’ and commit to removing those institutional barriers perpetuating this systemic inequity.


Find the full paper by Hitch D., Mahoney P. & MacFarlane S.  here.

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