Eating Our Young in the Modern University

In the last few years there has been anguished talk about the casualization of university teaching.  There are credible estimates that half of the undergraduate teaching in Australian universities is now done by part-time or contract staff, not by the permanent academics.

It’s now common for current graduate students, recent PhD graduates, and sometimes not-so-recent graduates, to be juggling two, three or even more part-time jobs to make ends meet.  They can be teaching at the same time on very different courses, in different departments, in different universities.

It’s an old and sensible arrangement that some university teaching is done by non-permanent staff.  They used to be called ‘tutors’ or ‘demonstrators’.  These jobs were assumed to be the first step in an academic career.  A newcomer would get some teaching experience, alongside some research experience, under the benevolent eye of senior academics.

That system could be exploited by university departments.  Some well-qualified women, especially, were kept indefinitely on annual appointments as tutor or demonstrator.  But this situation was seen as scandalous, when public attention was drawn to it.

No longer.  It’s seen as smart management.  The permanent academics in charge of undergraduate courses are now expected to act as low-level managers of a casual labour force.  Eerily like the way foremen on the wharves, a hundred and twenty years ago, used to pick You, You and You from the crowd of starving labourers at the dock gate, according to how many ships had come in that day.  (The area of Sydney where this used to happen was called “The Hungry Mile”. )

At a system-wide level, the academic workforce is being re-shaped into two tiers: a more-or-less permanently employed elite, and a short-term insecure workforce doing the mass teaching.  Even those who make the transition are not very secure, as university managements try to degrade employment conditions and conduct periodic purges, raids and restructures.

It’s easy to blame the managers, and some do behave very badly while being paid outrageous salaries.   But a system-wide problem isn’t produced by individual pathology.  Behind the bullying is a neoliberal policy logic, at national and international level.  In this logic, good management consists of driving down labour costs and maximizing corporate income, installing systems of surveillance and pretend accountability to control the staff, building a glossy public image and agonizing over where the university, considered as an individual firm, sits in the latest league table.  Top managers become celebrities, and are invited to think of themselves as part Louis XIV, part J. Pierpont Morgan.

We are producing more and more doctoral graduates in Australia, and in most parts of the world.  That’s a goal of all university managements, and the national government too.  It’s an important part of building a contemporary intellectual culture.  Research is the cutting edge of knowledge formation, and research is work (a highly specialized kind, but definitely work) and that needs a workforce.  This workforce needs to be suitably educated, obviously, and that’s what our current research degree arrangements (steadily becoming more controlled and rigid) are about. 

But the intellectual workforce also needs to be sustained and enabled to flourish, over time.  And that’s where the current neoliberal economy, policy settings, and managerial practices are operating perversely and destructively.

Neoliberalism sees education as a private good, a commodity, and applies that logic to the university sector.  Neoliberal regimes focus on short-term calculations of cost and profit – that applies in the corporate economy and the political system as well as to education – massively discounting (and often completely ignoring) long-term consequences.

Therefore managers in all sectors are pushed towards a mining strategy:  looking for immediately exploitable resources, extracting them, and selling them on a global market.  The Australian economy has been restructured around this strategy in the last thirty years, with open-cut coal and iron ore mining in the lead.

What goes for minerals also goes for social life.  The neoliberal economy mines the social: it looks for transactions, practices and institutions that can be fenced off and transformed into commodities.  Privatisation of public sector agencies was an early form of this.  Commodification of access is another form, now being hugely elaborated on the Internet.

I think that is, basically, what is happening in the university sector.  Neoliberal governments have commodified access, through ever-increasing fees; they have re-defined universities as competing firms, and steadily shrunk the per capita public funding.  Neoliberal managers in the universities have responded by looking for resources to mine.  Students and their families are the main ore body; but the labour force also has capacities that can be mined.

The consequence of this dire equation is that as the universities produce more qualified researchers, they also produce more and more insecurity in the form of casualized teaching - which is currently the main employment opportunity for doctoral graduates.  If current managerial thinking about putting courses on-line is followed through, this situation will become entrenched.  The MOOC model, for instance, requires a tiny specialized workforce at the top and a much larger casual workforce at the bottom.

The short-term logic of the neoliberal university is good for the neoliberal politicians, as it takes pressure off their budgets; it’s good for the university managers, as it gives them fat salaries and expanding power.  It’s already having a corrosive effect on the situation of young intellectual workers, and is degrading the quality of higher education, graduate and undergraduate.  The longer-run consequences for sustaining an intellectual culture are appalling. 

But of course!  How could I be so naive?  Why would anyone imagine that our corporate and state elites actually want a flourishing intellectual culture?
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