We are losing a generation

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Seeing the strikes in defense of pensions in the United Kingdom one cannot escape the feeling of optimism (however cautious). PhD students, junior faculty, and professors, all together, in the picket lines fighting for the common cause. Hardship funds have been set up. Lecturers are conducting off-campus seminars and share their knowledge for free. A kinder, more collegial, more communal face of academia has a chance to shine.

The fierce but cheerful pickets should not be necessary. Things like pensions should not be a topic requiring strike action in the 21st century at all, but the fact that it is needed to defend them with extreme means, in a sector like Higher Education, shows that we are in the middle of a grave crisis.

This crisis has its roots much deeper and its reach is much broader than it might be evident at the first glance. At its root lies the commodification of Higher Education. We started treating universities as providers of services that are supposed to operate inside the capitalist market economy and it will have grave consequences. Students have become clients.

This model has been functioning for a while and one can posit that although its problems, inherent injustice and simple inefficiency have been evident, it is now, quite recently, that we can finally start seeing the real consequences of “market thinking” in HE. Admittedly it also exhibits great regional variation, with the anglophone academic world being hit the most.

First of all commodification devalues education. Contrary to those, who believe that one can run academia like one runs a company, universities are not factories. Their aim is neither to produce a certain number of employable graduates (which, although still absurd as a metric, would at least be remotely quantifiable) nor “knowledge” or, even worse, “research output” seen as a commodity that has inherent monetary value. Their aim is to provide ideas, to reflect, to teach, to provide space for discussion, to foster talent (especially from marginalised backgrounds). Second, it might seem unbelievable but stating such tautology became necessary: work in academia is work. Commodification of education has put everybody in research sector into a corner where they have to explain that they do not receive “three months of paid vacation” per year. Third, and possibly worst, the merit selection, that has (with ups and downs, inherent problems and mistakes) driven the very idea of a university since its medieval inception, becomes unsustainable. Growing numbers of students are attracted to graduate programs. They work hard, very often way harder than their predecessors had to. They publish (driven by the very commodification – their output has to measurable in every respect), teach (no matter how they love it and want to do it, often endangering their own projects with the load they have to face and often having to navigate pedagogical problems without proper support from their institutions) and in effect are simultaneously the project leaders, research assistants and editors of their own projects. For all of that they are (mostly) paid meagrely, especially in the Arts and Humanities.

When they finish they are confronted with an almost impossible job market. If this were the case of the job market in the broader economy it would be hard to refute that, well, ivory tower thinking has led those graduates into programs that offer no chance of employment outside the university. The problem is, that the job market inside the academia is way more brutal and difficult than the one outside. Once and for all we need to say: this is not because they are not needed. They are. It is just that the Early Career Researchers have also become a commodity that is being employed “on project basis”, in short and precarious contracts, changing institutions and bearing the costs, stress and difficulties of juggling multiple jobs, changing their place of work frequently and lacking any sense of job security. Over 50% of academic staff in UK universities are on insecure contracts. They are responsible for a significant part of those universities research output, but they have become a commodity – they can be exchanged at will. Casualisation of academia is underway and (unstopped) it is, sooner or later, going to kill it.

False sense of competition – not a competition about the most innovative scholarship, the best teaching, the best ideas, but about flexibility, willing to risk private and family life, willing to compromise on almost everything – has dominated the academic job market. It has led to a wave of anxiety, exclusion and depression.

It is difficult to see how is this beneficial to science and to education. Sadly, some of the best of those, who have to go through it, drop out and they drop out not because they lack qualifications, motivation, ambition or skills. They drop out, because once you become a commodity for a branch of industry (and Higher Education is increasingly becoming an industry), even though you have to still excel in your performance, your future is not directly tied to this excellent performance of yours.

Result? We are losing a generation. It is happening slowly and not in the limelight of the public opinion and the consequences of that loss will not become starkly evident until some time from now.

We are losing the brave ones that are now on the picket lines in UK universities, fighting not only for their future but for the future of the senior staff as well. Their fight is now being described as “union propaganda”.

We are losing the technologically savvy humanists and arts inclined science graduates, who instead of trying to convince universities that their projects and skills, even though they not always fit into the evaluation schemes, are the future.

We are losing the engaged, who want and do devote large proportion of their time to blog, tweet, talk, work in the communities, to perform the role of the Public Intellectual 2.0 (so needed now), but who are not rewarded for it in academia.

We are losing those, who simply because of their economic situation cannot wait years for a permanent post, who cannot afford to commute sometimes for hours in order to keep their career going, who cannot afford to pay for conferences, who lack funds to support their families and need to find jobs in another sector. Not to mention those, whom this system led to years of stress, depression, sometimes even illness. They will go, sooner or later. Some of them, many of them brilliant, will manage to stay (at what cost?), but how many we will lose?

In twenty, thirty years the lack of this generation will come to haunt academia, it will haunt it with a vengeance. It will not be seen as wise that the generation that was the biggest chance in decades for the Higher Education sector to make a great leap forward has been driven down and, ultimately, lost. It is not too late to stop it, but in order to do it we need to let go of the idea that a university is just a business like any other.

Written on March 6, 2018