How Will COVID-19 Affect the International Reserve Army of Academic Labor?

massed commencement graduates
A (pre-COVID) commencement exercise or the formation of a soon-to-be-precariously-employed academic laborers?

One of the most remarkable recent developments in global higher education is the formation of what might be termed a reserve army of academic labor. By this, I mean those of us who have never been given the opportunity to embark on an academic career, in the proper sense of the word, in spite of years of study and hard work to obtain all the credentials required for such a career. In other words, I am referring to those of us who have graduated from doctorates into years of precarious employment, mixed with spells of no paid work at all.

The problem is well-known, and it has been widely debated in many societies, to the point that referring to it seems a commonplace. Alongside other problems that have been engendered by the marketization and privatization of higher education systems, the professional marginalization of large numbers of scholars and the reduction of stable employment to a privilege enjoyed by few has been much written about. A cursory Google search on “unemployed academics” returns 5.970.000 results at the time of writing, including news about the issue (1, 2) , first-hand accounts (1, 2) of looming joblessness, discussions on online fora, self-help advice for struggling scholars (be positive!), and scholarly analysis. Tangible change for the better has not resulted from these debates, and the tone of reporting on the problem seems to have changed little in recent years.

This raises the question how COVID-19 will affect new PhD graduates hoping for an academic career, as well those academics who had been relegated to the margins of their professional field even before the pandemic. In just a few months, the latter has brought about the collapse of institutional systems and processes, including global higher education. Around the world, face-to-face teaching has ceased, campuses are closed and empty, a sudden shift to pervasive online has generated little enthusiasm among students, travel restrictions have drained the lucrative flow of international students to a trickle, and many universities have reported significant financial problems.

One immediate consequence of the pandemic is that one way out of academic unemployment has been blocked for the foreseeable future. While global academic capitalism is responsible for the creation of a hypercompetitive and highly unequal academic world that has left many scholars struggling for work, it also enabled academics’ cross-border mobility, through the homogenization of institutional structures in higher education, enhanced international collaboration and dialogue, and so forth.

Consequently, international mobility became a realistic option for academics looking for work prior to the pandemic. However, border closures, travel restrictions, and the health risks involved in being mobile mean that taking a job at a university abroad may not be easily possible anymore for quite some time. For example, China, where I work, has closed its borders for an indefinite period and cancelled the visas of foreigners currently not in the country. This move has left many foreign colleagues who work at Chinese or Chinese universities stranded abroad and uncertain about their future. Under these circumstances, finding a job at a local university and joining the growing number of foreign academics here does not seem to be a realistic option.

I am currently carrying out a research project on European academics’ experiences of migration to China and career formation at Chinese universities. Among other activities, I have been conducting in-depth interviews with European colleagues, to learn more about their motivations for coming to China, their experiences of arriving, their career progression, their lives as foreigners in the country, and their future plans. These scholars’ stories have been broadly heterogeneous, painting a complex image of the successes and problems of academic internationalization in China. However, one striking finding is that nearly half of the academics I have so far interviewed came to China due to precarious employment and a lack of clear career prospects in Europe. Some had been unable to find work after the conclusion of their doctorates. Some had come up against age limits tied to academic positions they had held, alongside a lack of opportunities for promotion. Some had struggled through years of precarious employment at European universities before they were offered long-term employment in China. For all these scholars, international mobility had been a way to remain and do well in a professional field they were deeply invested in, both in intellectual and in emotional terms.

A qualitative study such as mine does not allow empirical generalizations as to the prevalence of this kind of international academic mobility. At the same time, the aforementioned interview accounts do point to ways in which international mobility may enable academics to develop stable and satisfying careers. Not all the scholars I interviewed had found a happy end in China, and some found themselves struggling with an unfamiliar academic system and a society they had hardly known prior to their arrival. Nonetheless, most regarded their move to China as either an important professional stepping stone, and a substantial number had found a permanent academic home in China.

The absence of such pathways for international mobility is likely to compound the problem of scarce and precarious employment at universities in Europe and elsewhere. As COVID-19 has destabilized academic systems, the travails now faced by universities in countries such as the UK (1, 2) might be taken as a signal that survival of the fittest is a poor principle by which to govern academic careers, and academic managers and policy makers might resolve to change course.

So far, however, there are few, if any indications, that such a change of course is on the horizon. Salient measures taken by universities at the international level in response to the pandemic, such as a pervasive shift to online teaching, do not suggest that academic capitalism is on the wane and that alternative modes of imagining and governing higher education would be taking root. As universities muddle through the crisis and opportunities for employment fade, both locally and internationally, things might become worse for those of us who work at the rough end of the academic labor market

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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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