Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Against the Academic "Precariat"

I was recently asked by a friend what I thought of this argument:

"The pernicious influence of neoliberal ideology on institutions of higher education is most evident, one could argue, in its increasing and intentional reliance on exploited labor. An overwhelming majority of the professoriate now belong to what economists and sociologists call the “precariat,” a portmanteau combining “precarious” and “proletariat” and referring to the social class of contingently employed or underemployed workers for whom predictability or security in employment is absent". - From here.

I think this is more than half true.

I can see a distinction, though, between "neoliberal ideology" and the simpler cost management of any institution.

Neo-liberal ideology believes that every institution should be "run like a business," with a naive idea that businesses are not deeply embedded in a political economy. Such a view would distort an academic institution into seeing professors as labor inputs, whose cost is to be reduced, rather than (in business terms) as the owners and artisans.  The true view of the university is that "the colleagues are the college", while the trustees hold the necessary property in trust, and the administration makes the trains run on time with a minimum of bother to the professors and students.

Even in a properly understood college, though, the main, and nearly the only cost of the college is seeing that the professors get paid enough to keep doing their work well.  This is why students pay tuition.  The heart of the enterprise, though, very much unlike a normal market business, is not to make a profit, but to have enough for the life-shaping enterprise of education to go on. Everyone benefits from well-educated citizens, so everyone is asked to give to the enterprise.  Most of the money comes from students or their parents, some from loyal alumni, some from friends, some from government. Because education benefits all of society, many people are willing to contribute for the education of others, as well as for themselves and their loved ones.

Therefore, even a properly understood college will have a reasonable and responsible concern to reduce costs.  Since there is mainly only the cost of professors, that is the natural place to look for cost savings.  Thus, colleges are continuously looking for ways to reduce the costs of providing a good education.  Most of them do not work, since the best practices of education continue to be a dedicated teacher and a small number of students working together to understand and form character.

The ideal for a college would be to have a stable group of teachers who teach all the students.  There would be a continuous movement of old professors out and new professors in, in a slow progression.  However, it is inevitable in any human enterprise that there would be some gaps between the ideal relation and reality. I think it reasonable for a college to  hire some adjuncts to cover the occasional gaps, as long as they did not do it very much.

The larger question of whether "neoliberal" ideology is good for any human enterprise is worth considering.  Secure employment is, I think, good for human beings as such, and for the great majority of individual humans. There is a natural tension between the employers' desire to keep the best workers, and the workers' desire to keep a job.  This is inevitable.  But it is not, I think, inevitable that employers should treat, or think of, workers as just another factor of production, to be reduced or discarded at will.  But that is an argument that goes well beyond the initial question of the academic precariat.