The academic career path has been thoroughly destabilised by the precarious practices of the neoliberal university.


Sydney Calkin picIt is an increasingly difficult time to begin an academic career. The pressures of the REF, casualization and adjunctification of teaching and the disappearance of research funding are enormous obstacles academics face. Sydney Calkin looks at how academics have in many ways become model neoliberal subjects. How might we effectively challenge the growing acceptance of the unpaid, underpaid, zero hours work within universities?

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 The position has since been withdrawn, although the statement issued by the university did little to assuage initial concerns.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

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, 1901 examination at faculty of medicine (Public domain)

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?

I recently came across Rosalind Gill’s excellent piece on the “hidden injuries” of the neoliberal university, an article which speaks directly to these concerns and was thoroughly illuminating. Gill discusses the precariousness of academic jobs, the intensification and extensification (blurring boundaries between work and not work), and how deep personal identification with professional successes and failures define academic work today; the lack of resistance can be attributed to the individualizing and silencing practices of the neoliberal university. Academics are, for Gill, the “model neoliberal subjects whose working practices … constitute us as self-regulating, calculating, conscientious and responsibilised.”

Reading this piece provoked a range of emotions for me, making me feel relieved to hear some of my deepest fears echoed by successful women, overwhelmed at the prospect of a career defined by precarity, and complicit in the practices of neo-liberal academia. The pressures of the REF, casualization and adjunctification of teaching, job precarity for academics at all levels, and the disappearance of research funding are enormous obstacles we currently face with little understanding of how to effectively challenge them. It seems, sometimes, that the context of crisis (and the discourses of ‘no alternative’) has instilled a mentality of precarity in which we feel the need to try harder, play the system more, and succeed in our own careers rather than speak out and identify perceived injustice. Gill continues:

Being hard-working, self-motivating, and enterprising subjects is what constitutes academics as so perfectly emblematic of this neoliberal moment, but is also part of a psychic landscape in which not being successful (or lucky!) is misrecognized – or to put it more neutrally, made knowable – in terms of individual (moral) failure

The idea of success or failure along the precarious academic career path is also an issue that was raised during a panel on the Neoliberal University at the recent Neoliberalism, Crisis, and World Systems Conference at York. John Holmwood made the case that in a neoliberal context, the social sciences will move towards behavioural sciences of the individual and thus move away from trenchant structural critiques of inequality or injustice. Research is reduced to impact, knowledge reduced to the possibility of ‘knowledge transfer’ to commercialization, and individual academic efforts reduced to success or failure on the basis of their REF-ability. It’s a difficult time to begin an academic career because the mentality of crisis and precarity pervades (and perhaps drives young academics to accept those ‘non-stipendiary’ positions when they appear). Furthermore, as young academics we appear to be the least capable of making changes in a system on which we depend for jobs, funding, etc.

It is especially troubling to see the way that the perception of unpaid work as an obligatory step on the career ladder is internalized and reproduced by young people themselves. In a blog post titled ‘So you want a job in policy?’ posted on Duck of Minvera, a blog for International Relations academics and students, an intern at a Washington think tank advised prospective interns to be prepared to accept unpaid work, and to“recognize that your 40-hours-a-week is simply the cost of entry”; successful interns will, she suggests, work far more hours performing menial tasks like making coffee and stuffing envelopes at which point they may be permitted to contribute blog posts and op-ed pieces.

Furthermore, she admits that “internships aren’t exactly paid in cash, they are paid in networks, and those networks are worth more than money” although, I would add, whatever the worth of these networks they will cost an enormous amount and exclude all but the most privileged. Young people accept and perpetuate the idea that their labour need not be compensated and contribute to an environment in which overqualified and unpaid interns continue to accept worsening conditions. They do this in part because of persistent belief in the ‘meritocratic’ nature of the system and the internalization of a neoliberalism’s call to focus on building one’s human capital through unpaid work and other ‘valuable experiences’ that promise compensation at a later date.

These considerations raise more questions than answers; I want to conclude by raising a few points for further discussion and challenges for fellow early-career (or aspiring) academics. Firstly, how can we work together with more senior staff to affect change within institutions? It seems that those senior staff with secure(r) jobs will be better positioned to resist academic casualization and to mount a robust challenge to the emergence of unpaid ‘volunteer’ or ‘non-stipendiary’ positions within their departments. Secondly,  how can we effectively challenge the growing acceptance among our peers of unpaid, underpaid, zero hour, and other forms of precarious work within universities? Striving to shape ourselves and our CVs to best succeed within the current system and to win one of the (diminishing) prestigious paid jobs is insufficient and counterproductive. What role for young academics in the fight back against casualization of university employment and neoliberalization of the university more broadly?

A version of this piece originally appeared on the Gender, Neoliberalism and Financial Crisis Conference blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Sydney Calkin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of York and the convenor of the recent Gender, Neoliberalism, and Financial Crisis Conference. Her research is in the area of feminist political economy and development, focusing on critical feminist approaches to empowerment and ‘smart economics’ policies in global governance institutions. She tweets at @sydneycalkin.