Labour Exploitation in Academia
Originally published in the Scotsman.
As part of my PhD research, I’ve been interviewing academics across Scotland. One of the surprising topics that’s come up repeatedly has been labour exploitation in academia.
When most people think of exploitation, they picture cramped sweatshops filled with unskilled minimum-wage workers, not the hallowed halls of academia. But the similarities are striking. One of my informants reflected that sociology has a long history revealing the substandard working conditions of the poor – yet today, many academics put up with conditions that would seem insane applied to other occupations. Most of us keep going because we love our work, because we care about our research projects and our students – but does that make exploitation acceptable?
One of my supervisors warned me that academic work is a “24-hour-a-day” job. It’s considered normal to work during evenings, weekends, and holidays, especially for junior lecturers, postdoctoral researchers, and (perhaps especially) PhD students. The popular stereotype of carefree summers could not be further from the truth – the break from undergraduate teaching is prime time to catch up on research, writing, and fieldwork. Semester time is packed with teaching, preparation, and student support. Growing class sizes and shrinking contact hours increase the pressure on individual lecturers, often meaning that teaching-related work overflows into time set aside for research.
Meanwhile, the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) judges academic departments on their publications and determines funding eligibility. Departments with publications in the most prestigious journals receive high scores, while those with fewer or less prestigious publications rank lower. In a perverse feedback loop, a high RAE score attracts funding, which allows for the hire of extra researchers who can produce publications without worrying about teaching. In departments that score lower on the RAE, publications must be produced by teaching staff, who are often overworked to begin with.
Adding to the stress of unlimited hours and constant pressure to publish are the short-term contracts that are becoming the norm in academia. Gone are the days when scholars could reasonably expect permanent employment within a few years of earning their PhDs. Instead, contracts for research projects and lecturing jobs usually last between six months and three years, forcing untenured academics to scramble for scarce funding when they could be focusing on their actual work. Academics accept this lack of job security as a matter of course – although, as I’m discovering in my interviews, few are happy about it.
In many ways, the situation in academia reflects the larger pattern of a neoliberal economy. Downsizing, outsourcing, turning employees into independent contractors who are endlessly interchangeable – the now-familiar patterns of manufacturing and other industries are creeping into higher education at just the time when innovation, creativity, interdisciplinary cooperation, and long-term thinking are most needed. The social and environmental crises we face cannot be solved through six-month contracts, yet those in an important position to develop solutions are hampered by a system that values profitability above all.
So what’s the answer? I wish I knew. But I do know that we need to start by asking what universities are for, then figuring out how they can best fulfil that role. Whatever the end goal, labour exploitation seems a poor strategy for accomplishing anything worthwhile.