Broken?

I’m not really one for live blogging, but I’m up late following the UK Guardian’s weekly online live chat, just concluded, on the subject of academic casualisation—not least for the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Rees in action. We’re all still falling short of figuring out exactly how edtech, university marketing and casualisation add up to the state that we’re in, but he’s on the case.

I wanted to find the conversation more encouraging, but it’s hard to ask a group of individual academics to solve systemic and intentional business strategies like this one, when their own choices are limited in practice to getting in, getting out or cheering up. The people with the capacity to make a real difference are mostly absent from these discussions: the Vice Chancellors and their management teams. Universities are run by design on a mix of casualisation and volunteerism—this is not an accident or an aberration, and it’s not temporary.  We all depend on it, in the worst possible way.

And as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out on Twitter, it’s not just academics who are being asked to settle for this. Our professional and administrative colleagues are also being buffeted around by short-term hiring and firing as higher education institutions cope with a rapidly changing market for full-term degrees.

Staffing flexibility makes business sense in difficult times; that’s exactly what the fast-food industry tells us. But we’re not doing a great job of limiting the social and personal harm that it causes, nor are we doing anywhere near enough to counsel those with aspirations to work in universities about the business model that determines their chances. It’s heartbreaking to read of casual academics who are working well below the UK minimum wage, once their real hours are calculated; or the highly qualified early career researchers who have done all the right things and can see nothing up ahead but bits and pieces of short-term work, at a time when many were hoping to start families. As one wrote:

I hate the uncertainty of short term contracts and most of all, I’m just so TIRED. I’ve realised that HE’s heart is in the wrong place. After 10 years of training I really don’t know if I want to stay in academia. Four of my closest friends – all in their early 30s with PhDs from Russell Group universities (if you think that matters) – are, like me, seriously considering leaving. Where is this going to go when we are all so broken?

And that’s the thing: when any system is broken, it breaks the people who are trying to make their way within it. There’s a ton of research on the consequences of long-term job precarity in terms of mental health and social wellbeing. Across all kinds of jobs and professions, casual employment is recognised as having negative impact on individuals, their families, and their communities. This is particularly significant to regional colleges and universities, where these institutions may be the only local employers for graduate professionals. The result isn’t good for anyone—it really can’t help to have universities staffed by so many people who wish they could find something more sustainable and less demoralising to do.

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s republished commencement speech from last month, on risk, failure and rescue:

We talk a lot about “risk management”—a nice hygienic phrase. But in the end, risk is necessary. Things can and will go wrong. Yet some have a better capacity to prepare for the possibility, to limit the damage, and to sometimes even retrieve success from failure. When things go wrong, there seem to be three main pitfalls to avoid, three ways to fail to rescue. You could choose a wrong plan, an inadequate plan, or no plan at all.

Gawande’s point is that if while risk is essential to change, we also need to be ready to act decisively when we can see that something is wrong: “The sooner you’re able to see clearly that your best hopes and intentions have gone awry, the better. You have more room to pivot and adjust. You have more of a chance to rescue.”

In terms of casualisation, this suggests that the first step towards rescue would be to achieve agreement that the situation is wrong in a serious way. This one should be fairly easy, as there’s really no shortage of people wanting to list the deficiences of higher education at the moment.  But when you plough through all the opinion on what we’re doing wrong, it seems as though very few of our critics mind all that much about our HR issues.  Nope, what we urgently need to reform is that we’re still giving delivering lectures in actual lecture theatres, failing to keep up with the Facebook generation, or insisting on offering our own first year Chemistry courses when we could get one off the shelf from an elite US institution in the new global higher education online Kwik-E-Mart.

Well, strike me down but I think the emphasis on achieving reform through more exciting use of technology is misplaced. What we’re actually doing wrong is at the other end of the spreadsheet where it’s really starting to look as though we’re recruiting PhD students to service our chronic dependency on casual teachers.  I really hate thinking that this is deliberate, but given that we know exactly how few real academic jobs become available every year, we have to ask: why else are we so keen to produce such a surplus of people who are qualified to fill them?

3 thoughts on “Broken?

  1. I do wish your message could be disseminated more widely. Technologists, trained as we are in technology, can’t be faulted overmuch for thinking of ways of making the academy more efficient through the use of digital tools, MOOCs and the like. It’s after all what we’ve been hired to do and if we’re getting the blessing of administration to do more of it, well then, we’re more than happy to oblige. In the larger context however it does seem like work misplaced. There’s a vast army of very highly trained PhDs that HE can and does hire at shockingly low wages when compared to the salaries we pay other professions and other offices in the university. And yet, in spite of how cheap this labor is, we’re still harping on the supposed high costs of higher education. Well yes, those costs exist, but it seems dubious that they originate in teaching since PhD’s are giving away their hard fought expertise at fire sale prices. The big salaries and real gains from making those salaries extend a little further, are likely to be found in other places in the academy. (How ‘bout for starters our hallowed football programs?) Lets focus the metaphor of the MOOC and its ancillary technologies on those aspects of the academy first: teaching has already been cheapened overmuch.

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  2. Luke, I think you’re exactly right that technologists can’t be faulted for their vision of reform focused on a myth of a fully-staffed, overprivileged and sheltered profession who have no investment in achieving change.

    Your comment has really helped me see that the “blessing of the administration” is the critical problem, as it’s a blessing upon the practice of looking away towards the horizon of innovation and disruption, and avoiding the really uncomfortable home truths about how higher education is managing by daily saving on labour costs.

    What I’m trying to figure out is if technology could actually help with this. I think something has to be possible. What’s to stop some of the new global faculty majority from getting on and running their own online learning environments, for example — what would it take for edtech to partner up with that bit of disruption?

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  3. Marc Bousquet has written about the overproduction of cheap faculty as deliberate. Running our own, indeed. Jeremiads to the contrary, it’s a charming thought if enough of my number can get over fear of tech as the ultimate threat (as if angry hysteria would keep it at bay) and give up hoping that tenure lines will miraculously appear and descend on them from the heavens like manna.

    For now I’ll settle for small steps on larger projects that will make a difference at the grunt level ~ we’re working on some ~ and spending more time tending those, less time waiting out loud for the edupocalypse. I don’t have the energy to do both. That’s what I found myself thinking during the conversation, that and wishing for a fresh, less hashed and re-hashed topic.

    I have no idea what shape future change will take. Stay flexible, expect the worst and don’t bet the farm, on any given outcome. I think of CP Cavafy’s barbarians… and then wonder how CogDog might render the digital story.

    Waitiing for the barbarians

    What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

    The barbarians are due here today.

    Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
    Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

    Because the barbarians are coming today.
    What laws can the senators make now?
    Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

    Why did our emperor get up so early,
    and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
    on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
    He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
    replete with titles, with imposing names.

    Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
    wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
    Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
    and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
    Why are they carrying elegant canes
    beautifully worked in silver and gold?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

    Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
    to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

    Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
    (How serious people’s faces have become.)
    Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
    everyone going home so lost in thought?

    Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
    And some who have just returned from the border say
    there are no barbarians any longer.

    And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
    They were, those people, a kind of solution.

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