Commodification and Exploitation in #HigherEd

(via AyeshaKazmi from the Occupy Boston protest)

Another conversation this morning about casualisation in UK higher education left me feeling I should probably try and articulate my convoluted and perhaps contradictory views on this issue. It keeps cropping up in conversations, usually in the pub, which inevitably leave me feeling afterwards that I’ve given people who I 99% agree with the impression that I’m somehow hostile to anti-casualisation arguments. I’m truly not. I organised an anti-casualisation session at the BSA postgraduate pre-conference a few years ago (with a speaker from UCU’s committee and another who had been heavily involved in disputes over grad student unionization in the US) which I was a bit pissed off that only a single person attended, despite lots of people being at the event. This issue has been relegated to the back of my mind in recent years, partly because I’m an avoidant person and responded to being pissed off that no one attended my session by not thinking about it and partly because I’ve been busy with a lot of other stuff, some of which has been higher education related activism of other forms. It’s an issue I care about deeply but one which, with three years of freelancing behind me, I seem to have slightly more complex views on than I did initially.

In the case from this morning Durham’s department of theology had posted an advert inviting PhD students to apply for the ‘opportunity’ to design and run extracurricular seminars with a target audience drawn from anywhere across the undergraduate student body. The advert implicitly acknowledged that there might be some expectation of payment for such an activity by making clear that the role would not be paid but there would be a ‘photocopying allowance’ (I’m not making this up) as well as familiar platitudes about the instrumental and personal value attached to such a wonderful opportunity. I hope it’s not hard to see why myself and others would find this objectionable and I suspect if you’re reading this blog then you probably more or less share that reaction. But I do find it harder to articulate precisely why I object and, as someone who would probably be a political philosopher right now if I hadn’t stumbled across sociology, this bothers me.

To explain why this is so, let me cite the example I had in mind while pondering this earlier. The Sociology Department at the University of Warwick has a long running Centre for Women and Gender Seminar Series which I’ve participated in twice and whose convenors have pretty much entirely been friends or acquaintances of mine over the past few years. The department often actively recruits these convenors because inevitably there is an end point to people’s willing involvement. I’m not sure how much work is involved but it’s probably not insignificant given that, as I recall, it’s a monthly seminar series over two academic terms with speakers organised into thematic sessions. Basically, I find it nigh on impossible to object to something like this yet many of the arguments cited against schemes such as that found in Durham’s theology department surely apply with (near) equal weight to the CWGS seminar series? In fact anything which contributes to the research culture of a department can be seen as contributing to the attractiveness of the department and its capacity to win funding – in which case does this not constitute work on behalf of the department which should be paid?

My slightly facile response to my own worry is to invoke the spectre of administration. My fear basically amounts to the possibility that anti-casualisation discourse could contribute to the already rampant comodification of higher education, collapsing the category of voluntary activity undertaken for its own intrinsic rewards into labour that is either paid or unpaid. So my response to this fear from an anti-casualisation standpoint is to say that what makes the difference is the administrative involvement of the university – at which point it ceases to be ‘voluntary activity undertaken for its own intrinsic rewards’ and begins to become part of the formal life of the institution and should be remunerated as such. But the abstraction of this distinction bothers me and this issue is still far from clear in my own head. Outside of this specific issue I’m still 100% supportive of the anti-casualisation campaign and hope this comes across (hence the long and defensive preamble about my activism in the first paragraph) – my abstract pontification also doesn’t detract from my acceptance of the well rehearsed moral arguments about the inequities attached to ‘opportunities’ to work for free given the obvious variability in people’s capacity to take them and the implications they can hold for future advancement.


Categories: Higher Education, Rethinking The World

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2 replies »

  1. Why can’t we do something that has intrinsic rewards and still get paid for it, because, after all, we also have to pay rent? Why should work that has intrinsic rewards be volunteer work? That would mean that the only people who could afford to do intrinsically rewarding work would be those with a large inheritance.

    • I’m not saying we can’t! I think they co-exist rather than being mutually exclusive & it’s the actually existing tensions between them that I find interesting.

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