Precarity and the Neoliberal University: What role for young academics?

A ‘job’ posting circulated on Twitter and Facebook a few weeks ago, 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 The position has since been withdrawn, although the statement issued by the university did little to assuage initial concerns.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. It seems that the culture of unpaid internships, already so pervasive across all sectors, has now extended into 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 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 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 that 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.

I am writing this blog post in part to challenge all of us participating in this conference to examine our own roles in participating in these practices and reproducing them. The Gender, Neoliberalism, and Financial Crisis conference aims to present feminist critiques of the neoliberal system, highlighting forms of resistance, activism, and new directions for feminist research. It is essentially structured around the premise that feminists object to neoliberalism, its erosion of the boundaries between market and non-market spheres, and its reduction of all aspect of life to the economistic, auditable, and profitable. Nonetheless, is each of us not complicit in this system in the context of the neoliberal university? How can we, as young academics pursuing careers in this field, challenge the disturbing trends we see? Given the constraints on the conference, there won’t be enough time for a panel or roundtable on these questions on the day. I hope to use the blog to generate discussion before the conference and in this case, perhaps to try and create a sort of community that might begin to break the silence that Ros Gill’s piece introduces.  What are your thoughts?

Sydney Calkin is a PhD Candidate in Politics at York and the conference organiser.  

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