The precarious practices of the neoliberal university

(via AyeshaKazmi from the Occupy Boston protest)

This thoughtful (though depressing) post on the LSE Impact Blog dissects the politics of the precarious future faced by grad students in the United Kingdom. How does the future look elsewhere? Better? Worse? The Idle Ethnographer and I have a chapter coming out in the Para Academics Handbook in which we explore some of these issues through the lens of our experience running this website:

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 The position has since been withdrawn, although the statement issued by the university did little to assuage initial concerns.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?


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