Love. Love Will Tear Us Apart. Again.
Industrial action taken by ITC lecturers has provoked a predictable backlash in various comments sections. It seems that no matter how evidence you present of long hours and terrible way in the growing academic precariat, the conviction that lecturers of any description must be lazy and greedy is so deeply entrenched that mere facts seem powerless to shift it. Indeed, if you begin a google search with “Lecturers are…” then “lazy” is the word that is first suggested. It seems that many people feel that lecturers are always thought to be being paid too much, are not working hard enough, and should be sacked without warning on a regular basis. And the frequent comment is made “… if they don’t like it, they can find another job.”
Other public sector workers are not (yet) given the same advice. When firefighters, nurses, and law enforcement are unable to adequately recruit – nobody says “well, once a few towns have burned down and hundreds of people have died, then market forces will somehow correct the situation.” And yet lecturers do, surely, perform some kind of essential service. If it agreed that society needs people with higher education (and higher education qualifications), then society needs people who will work within the higher education sector – people who need to be paid a living wage. How can lecturers be both inherently necessary and always deplorable at the same time?
Thinking about the casualisation of higher education has made me realise that really it is love that has made us so vulnerable.
Not me though. Through an accident of natal sequencing, I happen to be old enough to have bagged a degree of security. Being in the right place at the right time means that I have a roof over my head and a mortgage that will be duly paid off and the ability to purchase food for several people. There are thousands of postdocs out there, in every sense cleverer, harder working, more considerate and determined than I am for whom such lofty material aspirations seem like a crazy pipe-dreams. They have every reason to want to throw stones at lucky bastards like me, but they don’t, because they are themselves lovely.
Casualisation means that university teaching across much of North America and North West Europe is being taught on a sessional contract basis which, allowing for necessary preparation time, means working for less than minimum wage. Many highly qualified and gifted instructors have to work at more than one institution, with attendant travel costs.
The ruthless application of market principles determines that you pay people what you can get away with paying them. And it is Love that is being exploited. People want to enter academia because they love what they do and they can’t imagine doing anything else. That’s what makes them so exploitable. Of course, work that you love is still tiring work. It’s still an expenditure of physical resources. But the imposition of pay cuts and/or the replacement of proper contracts with sessional arrangements (flexibility don’t you know) is austeriarchy’s way of exploiting love. If you love what you do, you’ll do it no matter what.
Trouble is, the people who love to teach in higher education will probably love other things and, more importantly, other people. People intending to take on a PhD and seek work in higher education need now to be made aware that they may never be able to get a mortgage or start a family. They may never be able to care for loved ones. And perhaps most poignantly of all, people who work on sessional contracts in a university may never be able to send their children to a university themselves. There are people working in universities who are tormented by a sense that higher learning is something they are robbing their own daughters and sons of.
Is there a self-righting mechanism to the love-relying love-denying logic of austeriarchy’s impoverishment of higher education? Is there a point where people give up accepting these contracts until the laws of supply and demand require that a living wage and longer terms security be offered again? Perhaps instead, university teaching will follow the way of other professions that demand unpaid internships and will effectively become the province of those few people with inherited wealth, people who have sufficient independent means to ensure that pay is not really an issue. Such a model has perpetuated itself quite effectively in the past and could again in future. Lecturers from wealthy families teaching students from wealthy families to ensure that proper accreditation is transmitted to the right sort of people. Yes. I can see that working. Academics helping to police the new serfdom. Because Love is a pie and there’s only so much to go around.