It is an increasingly difficult time to begin an academic career. The pressures of the REF, casualization and adjunctification of teaching and the disappearance of research funding are enormous obstacles academics face. Sydney Calkin looks at how academics have in many ways become model neoliberal subjects. How might we effectively challenge the growing acceptance of the unpaid, underpaid, zero hours work within universities?
A ‘job’ posting circulated on Twitter and Facebook in July 2013, provoking a mix of shock, anger, and hopelessness among academics, particularly young aspiring academics. The posting was for a ‘non-stipendiary’ junior research fellowship in philosophy at Essex. The position has since been withdrawn, although the statement issued by the university did little to assuage initial concerns. The university expressed alarm that, in the current funding climate, the intentions for the scheme were “at risk of being misunderstood and misrepresented.” Although the position is not paid, the statement continues, fellows may take on other work in addition, apply for funding, or take other measures to “manage a period without paid employment”. It’s difficult to identify at what point the misunderstanding occurred: the position was indeed an unpaid year-long posting for a post-doctoral researcher.
More recently, the Theology and Religion department at Durham came under fire for soliciting postgraduate volunteers to do unpaid teaching on its modules; rather than being paid, teachers on the course would benefit in terms of the “valuable experience” of this “career development opportunity.” It seems that the culture of unpaid internships, already so pervasive across all sectors, has now extended into doctoral and post-doctoral life. How can it be that in the higher education sector work is now severed from the guarantee of pay? Paid work would be great, but it’s no longer guaranteed.
By no means is this limited to the few ‘non-stipendiary’ positions that have been posted recently. This trend is evident in the proliferation of ‘adjunct’ positions, the disappearance of permanent jobs and the tenure track, and the increasing use of underpaid PhD students to provide cheaper teaching (see Sarah Kendzior’s great pieces for more on these issues). Part of what is so disturbing about the increasing precariousness of academic employment is that it overturns my previously held assumption that academics would be resistant to such practices, eager as we are to critique neoliberal capitalist exploitation. Why, then, the seemingly complete disconnect between theory and practice here?
I recently came across Rosalind Gill’s excellent piece on the “hidden injuries” of the neoliberal university, an article which speaks directly to these concerns and was thoroughly illuminating. Gill discusses the precariousness of academic jobs, the intensification and extensification (blurring boundaries between work and not work), and how deep personal identification with professional successes and failures define academic work today; the lack of resistance can be attributed to the individualizing and silencing practices of the neoliberal university. Academics are, for Gill, the “model neoliberal subjects whose working practices … constitute us as self-regulating, calculating, conscientious and responsibilised.”
Reading this piece provoked a range of emotions for me, making me feel relieved to hear some of my deepest fears echoed by successful women, overwhelmed at the prospect of a career defined by precarity, and complicit in the practices of neo-liberal academia. The pressures of the REF, casualization and adjunctification of teaching, job precarity for academics at all levels, and the disappearance of research funding are enormous obstacles we currently face with little understanding of how to effectively challenge them. It seems, sometimes, that the context of crisis (and the discourses of ‘no alternative’) has instilled a mentality of precarity in which we feel the need to try harder, play the system more, and succeed in our own careers rather than speak out and identify perceived injustice. Gill continues:
Being hard-working, self-motivating, and enterprising subjects is what constitutes academics as so perfectly emblematic of this neoliberal moment, but is also part of a psychic landscape in which not being successful (or lucky!) is misrecognized – or to put it more neutrally, made knowable – in terms of individual (moral) failure
The idea of success or failure along the precarious academic career path is also an issue that was raised during a panel on the Neoliberal University at the recent Neoliberalism, Crisis, and World Systems Conference at York. John Holmwood made the case that in a neoliberal context, the social sciences will move towards behavioural sciences of the individual and thus move away from trenchant structural critiques of inequality or injustice. Research is reduced to impact, knowledge reduced to the possibility of ‘knowledge transfer’ to commercialization, and individual academic efforts reduced to success or failure on the basis of their REF-ability. It’s a difficult time to begin an academic career because the mentality of crisis and precarity pervades (and perhaps drives young academics to accept those ‘non-stipendiary’ positions when they appear). Furthermore, as young academics we appear to be the least capable of making changes in a system on which we depend for jobs, funding, etc.
It is especially troubling to see the way that the perception of unpaid work as an obligatory step on the career ladder is internalized and reproduced by young people themselves. In a blog post titled ‘So you want a job in policy?’ posted on Duck of Minvera, a blog for International Relations academics and students, an intern at a Washington think tank advised prospective interns to be prepared to accept unpaid work, and to“recognize that your 40-hours-a-week is simply the cost of entry”; successful interns will, she suggests, work far more hours performing menial tasks like making coffee and stuffing envelopes at which point they may be permitted to contribute blog posts and op-ed pieces.
Furthermore, she admits that “internships aren’t exactly paid in cash, they are paid in networks, and those networks are worth more than money” although, I would add, whatever the worth of these networks they will cost an enormous amount and exclude all but the most privileged. Young people accept and perpetuate the idea that their labour need not be compensated and contribute to an environment in which overqualified and unpaid interns continue to accept worsening conditions. They do this in part because of persistent belief in the ‘meritocratic’ nature of the system and the internalization of a neoliberalism’s call to focus on building one’s human capital through unpaid work and other ‘valuable experiences’ that promise compensation at a later date.
These considerations raise more questions than answers; I want to conclude by raising a few points for further discussion and challenges for fellow early-career (or aspiring) academics. Firstly, how can we work together with more senior staff to affect change within institutions? It seems that those senior staff with secure(r) jobs will be better positioned to resist academic casualization and to mount a robust challenge to the emergence of unpaid ‘volunteer’ or ‘non-stipendiary’ positions within their departments. Secondly, how can we effectively challenge the growing acceptance among our peers of unpaid, underpaid, zero hour, and other forms of precarious work within universities? Striving to shape ourselves and our CVs to best succeed within the current system and to win one of the (diminishing) prestigious paid jobs is insufficient and counterproductive. What role for young academics in the fight back against casualization of university employment and neoliberalization of the university more broadly?
A version of this piece originally appeared on the Gender, Neoliberalism and Financial Crisis Conference blog.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Sydney Calkin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of York and the convenor of the recent Gender, Neoliberalism, and Financial Crisis Conference. Her research is in the area of feminist political economy and development, focusing on critical feminist approaches to empowerment and ‘smart economics’ policies in global governance institutions. She tweets at @sydneycalkin.
I attended the LSE in the late 80s and was taught in a first-year seminar group by a post-graduate student. No doubt he was cheaper than one of the tenured academics, but he gained something from it and he knew a lot more about sociology than I did! Clearly when people are asked to work for free, that’s a big concern. postgrad teaching contracts are not in the same category and are not some kind of recent phenomenon.
A postgrad teaching contract is a good job. It’s not part of the phenomenon she’s talking about.
Well, the piece refers to “the increasing use of underpaid PhD students to provide cheaper teaching”. I’m just saying that PhD students were providing teaching when I was at the LSE in the 80s.
I think the key point here is ‘underpaid PhD students’. PhD students on a teaching contract are not underpaid, at least not in my experience, and they should receive training before they teach. And they generally get good feedback from the students they teach, as they can offer a fresh and enthusiastic perpective. Again, at least in my experience! Underpaid, or indeed unpaid, labour is a different matter altogether.
I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant last year, and I was paid well for the 2 hours I taught per week. However, I was not paid for any of the many hours of required training or my weekly seminar planning, nor was I paid for the time it took to mark and give feedback on nearly 100 essays. I know others who do get paid a certain amount for preparation time, but my experience of working 8 hours+ per week and only being paid for 2 is also common.
I was paid a total of about £1800 to teach a year-long course at SOAS, University of London, as a Graduate Teaching Assistant when I was a PhD student. I don’t consider that being paid well.
Alas, this whole situation of unpaid “volunteers” and fellowship positions is commonplace where I teach (Brazil). In many cases there is no guaranteed funding even for graduate students. Most internships are unpaid and are often equivalent to accomplishing menial tasks. I’ve heard many cases of professors who “delegate” their classes to graduate students, off the record, so the only thing the student earns is “experience” (which he/she can include in the CV). This in public universities. Private universities here avoid hiring PhDs to lower costs (teachers are paid per hour of class, according to the degree — graduates, Masters and PhDs). I know it is far from the British reality, but there are worse places for academic life.
>> It seems that the culture of unpaid internships, already so pervasive across all sectors, has now extended into doctoral and post-doctoral life
They’re really not. Unpaid internships are concentrated in the media, PR, arts and cultural sectors, and are almost unknown in most other sectors. Long may it stay that way!
I know this is slightly orthogonal to your main point, but I think it’s really important to keep challenging this idea that unpaid internships are everywhere and are a necessary part of a graduate career, because the perception that they are “normal” and widespread helps them propagate. Charlie Ball at HECSU found that less than 1% of graduates are in unpaid internships according to the DLHE data, and there is no research indicating that they’re likely to be more common than that. They get a lot of press because they’re such a feature of the media industry, but they aren’t common elsewhere.
Should have added: unpaid internships also seem to be a more established part of a high-level professional career in the US, which is possibly also where the perception that they are widespread comes from. (My understanding is that “internship” exists as a legal category in the US, which it doesn’t here because of minimum wage legislation.) Unpaid internships are not legal in the UK unless they are a credit-bearing part of a course of study or a qualification, and should not be being used or offered by employers.
My experience is that Mary Macfarlane is correct. Unpaid internship, though not unheard of, is not a major issue in UK academia. Yet.
By far the bigger issue is academic casualisation. I am employed on a zero hours contract at Sheffield Hallam University, and as an “atypical worker” (i.e. not an employee) at University of Sheffield. I’ve been seven years in the former role, nine in the latter. I am sixty-one (belying the fact this is a young person’s issue) and, true to the old polytechnic ideal, have moved between industry and academia several times since the mid eighties. A highly experienced teacher, I get consistently good student feedback, aided precisely by the fact I have done other jobs too. They give me the “war stories” that breathe life into textbook principles.
In both universities I have taught a mix of new and established classes year after year. A key distinction, often lost in recent debates about zero hours contracts, is between their temporary use in response to spikes in demand, and their routine use to bypass protections enshrined in employment law. (Not to mention standards of decency and fair play.)
Both my own direct experience and a wealth of data – most recently from the UCU survey in July this year – shows many British Universities using ZHCs to cheat the law.
For more on this, see my blog about the casualisation of British academia.
Good article.Keep posting informative articles.
This is the same as politics. Governments demand us for big sacrifices, being them well fed and protected. The truth is that the sacrifices of people are good only for who is in a good position, because the status quo can be maintained.
We shall just destroy the system we belong to, refusing those sacrifices and restarting from zero, after removing the so-called experts who brought us to this point.
So, people are students, governments are professors and universities. They know the system doesn’t work, but they’re not interested in changing it, because they are the privileged. It’s up to us to change the things.
I still can’t see the objective of precarious academic employment, casualisation, etc analysed in the blog. Why do universities, the state and other players encourage this and resistance is minimal? Are there deep social and economic relations which play a significant, if not a determinat role? How does “neoliberalism” function in this field and why? How it came to dominate? What does that mean ideologically? Do other academics, especially those in European universities, which charge very low or no fees, suffer from such a plight?