‘Working conditions are learning conditions’

Higher Education for a Democratic Society (Part III)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

Casualties of corporatisation

‘Of late we can observe distinctly that the German universities in the broad fields of science develop in the direction of the American system. The large institutes of medicine or natural science are ‘state capitalist’ enterprises, which cannot be managed without very considerable funds. Here we encounter the same condition that is found wherever capitalist enterprise comes into operation: the ‘separation of the worker from his means of production.’ The worker, that is, the assistant, is dependent upon the implements that the state puts at his disposal; hence he is just as dependent upon the head of the institute as is the employee in a factory upon the management. For, subjectively and in good faith, the director believes that this institute is ‘his,’ and he manages its affairs. Thus the assistant’s position is often as precarious as is that of any ‘quasi-proletarian’ existence and just as precarious as the position of the assistant in the American university.’ (Max Weber, ‘Science as a vocation’, 1919)

It was not until the session ‘Faculty in Future U’ that I became aware of my own lack of knowledge about what is going on to support university workers on ‘fixed’ or ‘atypical’ contracts in the UK, to analyse trends in the casualization of academic labour, or to push against and challenge contractual opportunism and exploitation. There were indictments in the conference of divisions between those on full-time and ‘permanent’ contracts and those working more precariously – more prominent in the US since the vast majority of undergraduate teachers are adjuncts and because adjuncts are often treated appallingly – and it is clear that we need to do much more to make these alliances.

The session focused on the conditions of academic labour in Australian, Canadian and US universities, specifically on problems of casualization, career structures and the relationship between online education and labour relations. However, there was also a strong message that, as a number of students put it, ‘teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions’; or in other words, that the casualization of educational work has deleterious effects on higher education and knowledge on the whole as well as on individuals. A system that is leaving students and educators in poverty is failing.

In recent years, the personal consequences of working as an adjunct professor – many of whom are now burdened with student loans, without health care and included in the US’s bulging numbers of ‘working poor’, and which also make up over three quarters of the US academic teaching force – have been brought to public attention: ‘Hello, class, your professor’s on food stamps’, ‘From graduate school to welfare’, ‘Why adjunct professors are struggling to make ends meet’, and most distressingly, ‘Zero opportunity employers’. Two major organisations – the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labour (founded between 1996 and 1998) and the New Faculty Majority (founded in 2009), as well as the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education – are working across a range of issues to, in the words of the NFM mission:

improving the quality of higher education by advancing professional equity and securing academic freedom for all adjunct and contingent faculty. For this purpose, NFM engages in education and advocacy to provide economic justice and academic equity for all college faculty. NFM is committed to creating stable, equitable, sustainable, non-exploitative academic environments that promote more effective teaching, learning, and research.’

But, the panellists asked, is casual labour a bad thing? Doesn’t it give more people more opportunities for working ‘flexibly’? While there are plenty of links above offering various answers to this question. According to Robin Sowards, three stand out:

  • contingent labour is unsustainable;
  • contingent labour contributes to poor quality education; and
  • contingent labour contradicts the university’s historical mission.

Indeed, he argued, the conditions of adjunct teaching are such that they may impact negatively on students’ learning and educational experience – and most particularly addressed in the criteria used to evaluate this experience via the US National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). For example:

  • opportunities for ‘participation in dozens of educationally purposeful activities’ are diminished by contingent labour as adjunct professors, particularly those who work at multiple universities, often do not have either the resources to support extracurricular activities or collaborative and interactive learning, or the ability to make the long-term plans that are needed to organise these activities


  • contingent arrangement may make it difficult for professors to engage critically with ‘institutional requirements and the challenging nature of coursework’, particularly as they may fear encouraging students to challenge their comfort zones in environments where their teaching is evaluated solely on the basis of students’ satisfaction


  • ‘perceptions of the college environment’ may be disappointed when students are forced to meet with professors who do not have offices for supervision, adequate spaces for teaching, and in some cases even official university emails for communicating; the ‘unbundling’ of support for students and pastoral care and its redistribution through a range of ‘services’ may have deleterious effects on relationships between students and their teachers

When adjunct professors make up the bulk of the teaching community but receive little or no support for doing research or engaging in continuing education through attending and presenting at conferences in their field, students lose opportunities to learn about, from and through original and challenging research, and the university fails in its historic mission to support the advancement of knowledge and academic freedom. As more contingent faculty scramble for fewer funding grants for research, the narrower the fields of original research will become. Adjunct faculty often have little voice in their own departmental affairs, little relationship to the processes of decision-making within universities; in short, little voice or agency in the conditions of their work.

In other words, contingent academic labour – in the US, the UK and elsewhere – is not just a flexible adaptation to changing conditions, or a new way for graduate students to gain experience in ‘being academic’. As more and more ‘permanently’ contracted academics realise the precarity of even this position, which does not protect them from being ‘redeployed’ in structural reorganisation, being subjected to an imposed ‘re-evaluation of roles’ in response to even short-term changes in markets, or in some cases having their contract withdrawn. Contingency and precarity is becoming a new status quo.

Contingency and precarity of being academic – the UK picture
So what is the state of play in the UK? Academic work, and teaching in particular, is not as casualised as it is in the US, where just over three quarters of professors (or ‘lecturers’, in UK terms) are adjuncts. How does this system fare in comparison to others, such as Australia, where according to Leesa Wheelahan about 60% of teaching is done by people on casual contracts with few structured frameworks of career development? To Canadian universities, where the number of tenure-track posts increased by 30% between 1998 and 2010, but, according to Glen Jones, academic labour is becoming more fragmented in both vertical and horizontal ways? Or to universities in Finland?

It takes a little work to get a handle on the scope of the problem because the data on labour contracts is slippery: adjunct faculty are variously classified as ‘fixed-term’, ‘hourly paid’ or simply ‘atypical’. HESA statistics suggest that in 2011/12, just under half of all academics in the UK were on permanent full-time contracts, and about one-fifth on fixed-term part-time contracts, or more than a third on fixed-term contracts overall. However, as pointed out by Anna Fazackerley, there are 82,000 ‘atypically’ employed people missing from these figures; she also highlights a 30% rise in teaching-only, temporarily employed lecturers from 2009 to 2012.

The UK University and College Union now asserts that ‘fixed-term and hourly paid staff are faced with job insecurity which blights our further and higher education systems, bringing with it inefficiency, inequality and personal stress.’ It is also running a campaign called ‘Stamp Out Casual Contracts’, which aims to raise awareness both about casualization and the union’s work to challenge it. In the meantime, to support those on casual contracts, they also publish an ‘Hourly Paid Survival Guide’. But if academic teachers are only surviving, something is broken.

There was an interesting debate within the conference over strategies for ending casualization and establish reasonable contracts for academics. Some argued that it was necessary to demonstrate how casualization negatively impacts upon the quality and creativity of teaching and ‘educational outcomes’. Others, however, felt that this could be interpreted as a devaluation of the deeply committed work that many adjunct professors do with and for their students, contribute to a negative discourse about the academy, and in the final analysis potentially be regarded as irrelevant in situations where what matters is not learning but profit.

The faculty of the future
Several proposals were made during this session, again by Robin Sowards: the establishment of universal job security for all workers, including academics; and greater workplace democracy, or worker control of our educational institutions. Both of these require work to enable more collective action, and ‘multiplying points of leverage in co-ordinated struggle’.

He also reminded us that the word ‘university’ is a shortened and Anglicised version of the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, or ‘community of masters and scholars’ – a ‘community’ which has taken many different forms across time and space. One of the peculiar features of this community, however, is that we can easily forget that we are also workers. Another is that we seem to also forget, as Chomsky recently said in an interview on why the corporatization and casualization of academic work is a bad idea, that:

‘We are human beings with human rights. It’s good for the individual, it’s good for the society, it’s even good for the economy, in the narrow sense, if people are creative and independent and free. Everyone benefits if people are able to participate, to control their fate, to work with each other – that may not maximize profit and domination, but why should we take those to be values to be concerned about?’

Of course do not have to accept these as values, or adopt them as principles of practice. We can work within and across our departments and universities to ensure that everyone has facilitative and just conditions of work. To ensure that those with ‘privilege’ do as much as possible to protect those who are still struggling in and against precarity, that they are visible and audible and have the space and resources and recognition they deserve. We can ensure that we do not self-exploit or exploit the vulnerability, goodwill and carefulness of our colleagues and students. We can learn more about and lend a shoulder to the campaign to fight imposed casualization and precarity in academic and all labour.

Yet amidst all this, I am mindful that the right to work is not necessarily liberatory, or rather that it is not a sufficient measure of liberation within a system that disciplines and punishes possibility through labour itself. I have yet to explore how the struggle for justice in academic labour may be connected with or radicalised through struggles for the disarticulation of higher learning from the wage. For as Kathi Weeks asks in The Problem with Work,

‘Why do we work so long and so hard? The mystery here is not that we are required to work or that we are expected to devote so much time and energy to its pursuit, but rather that there is not more active resistance to this state of affairs.’
And later:

‘The refusal of work is at once a model of resistance, both to the modes of work that are currently imposed on us and to their ethical defense, and a struggle for a different relationship to work born from the collective autonomy that a postwork ethics and more nonwork time could help us to secure.’

Yet even if we have a post-work horizon in sight, the hardships and consequences of its ‘casualization’ are problems today, and they are having deleterious effects on people’s bodies and lives, and on the opportunities available for critical education. Human beings are not human resources. As both the creation of universal job security and the establishment of greater workplace democracy are both, in effect, already projects to undermine the logic of and power capital in our educational institutions, it makes sense to align these to other struggles against the alienation of labour and reification of human possibility into human resources as well.

One Reply to “‘Working conditions are learning conditions’”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *