De profundis

by federico stevanin
by federico stevanin

For some time now, I have been writing about the working conditions and career prospects of junior academics in the UK. The importance of these issues is illustrated quite vividly by a recent article in Times Higher Education. A photograph published together with the online version of this article shows a couple of poorly dressed men rummaging through rubbish bins in what looks like a fairly seedy alley or backyard. The text itself examines the work arrangements and living conditions of academics employed on zero hour contracts. It’s titled ‘Academics’ bin diving ’caused by zero-hours contracts’’. It suggests that thousands of academics might be employed in extremely precarious arrangements, and its opening paragraphs read as follows:

‘Academics on zero-hours contracts have been driven to go “bin diving” for food because they are struggling to make ends meet, the University and College Union’s congress has heard. Liza van Zyl, retention officer at Cardiff University, told delegates in Brighton that she had been astonished by the number of hourly paid lecturers who had asked her if they could take part in “food-scavenging workshops” advertised on campus. Speaking on 29 May, Ms van Zyl said the popularity of classes on how to look through supermarket bins highlights the “gross misuse of zero-hours contract staff, which is driving people into destitution”.’

This puzzled me. Things surely can’t be that bad. The report had been published on June 6. Might June 6 be a sort of April Fools’ Day in the UK? I investigated the matter. June 6 is not known to be a day for pranks and practical jokes. It is, however, not very difficult to find other online sources about academics working on zero hour contracts. Some universities have even published their respective regulations. So is the kind of humiliating treatment documented in Times Higher Education really the reward for having intellectual ambitions, doing a PhD and pursuing an academic career?

At the moment, some universities do seem to be very happy with quite a lot of inequality. This is illustrated by one particularly striking anecdote in the THE article, in which one part-time academic reports that she has been told off for using the same toilets as regular members of staff. Toilet apartheid is certainly a great way to make a point about membership in the academic community. If such anecdotes don’t convince you, perhaps the results of a recent study conducted by UCU will. Apparently, universities are even more likely than other employers to make extensive use of zero-hour contracts. This coincides in a striking manner with reports about a growing elitism in British academia. Will full participation in academic life come to be the preserve of a few highly privileged scholars, working in detachment from a mass of teachers and research assistants employed under the most precarious conditions?

At the same time, there are still many academics who regard such ways of treating one’s colleagues as problematic and who are willing to question the underlying labour relations. The on-going UCU campaign against the casualisation of academic labour is a case in point. This does not mean, however, that incidents of the sort reported in THE can be taken lightly. Over a now fairly extensive period of time, universities in the UK have been remade in the image of the neoliberal corporation. There are important questions to be asked about the consequences which attendant shifts in labour relations have had for scholarship. How do the casualisation and precarisation of academic labour and the resulting steep hierarchies in the workplace affect the ways in which scholars conduct research and generate knowledge in academic spaces? What happens to teaching that is outsourced to a precarious labour force that barely forms part of the universities in which it teaches? How does casualisation shape the professional identities and labour practices of those academics fortunate enough to be permanently and securely employed? What are the consequences of casualisation for the future of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, whose role in the corporate university is increasingly contested? How much more inequality in the working and living conditions of their staff are universities willing to tolerate? How many academics and academic managers really care? What exactly is it about the structures of academic organisations that makes it so difficult to care?

When I studied sociology, I was taught by professors with a vivid and genuine interest in questioning the inequalities that shape life in contemporary society. I was introduced to texts that had a profound impact on my thinking and that of my classmates, from Pierre Bourdieu’s The Weight of the World to Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character. I came to view this concern about social inequalities as the essence of the sociological enterprise. Academic sociology has obviously arrived at a clear and sophisticated understanding of social inequalities and exploitation. The same can be said for many other disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities. So why then is it that academia nowadays seems to be happy to accept labour conditions that prevent scores of highly educated young people from settling into stable and meaningful careers? So why then is it that so little attention is given to the ways in which years of unstable employment here and there (or not at all) blight the personal lives of so many academics? And again – who cares?

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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