Comment & Analysis
May 3, 2018

How Universities Put Survival Before Their Staff

Ulf Strohmayer argues that entrepreneurial, commercialised universities have become shadows of their former selves.

Ulf Strohmayer Op-Ed Contributor
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Dominic McGrath for The University Times

Universities are communities on their own yet serve as mirrors of society at large. Unlike many other places of employment, universities afford their employees a sense of belonging that is not artificially imposed but is generated and maintained through precise and varied rhythms born of a wide array of social contacts, tasks and performances.

And, like wider society, universities are furthermore typified by social gradients, segregated roles and shared yet greatly differentiated responsibilities. It is the co-existence of these latter distinctions with the unique sense of belonging – a fragile ecosystem even during the best of times – that has been thrown into disarray by the recent governmental decision to allow universities to recruit staff on salaries exceeding hitherto accepted caps.

If that decision is bad enough, it is augmented by the fact that it will take root within Irish universities at a time when they are increasingly characterised by two overarching tendencies. The first is an enduring attempt to outsource core activities, and the second the proliferation of non-permanent contracts.

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While the former typically attach to non-academic work environments within universities (ground keeping, cleaning and parking for instance), the latter increasingly defines core academic practices. Both progressively characterise conditions of work for the less powerful and more vulnerable members of universities. In a sense, then, universities are becoming less unique and come to resemble society more directly.

Why would we therefore expect employment practices at Irish universities to be exempt from such an embrace?

Talk of the entrepreneurial university, the presence of commercial “launchpads” financed by Blackstone (one of the key beneficiaries of the spectacular crash that was self-manufactured by Ireland some 10 years ago) or the frequently uncritical embrace of commercial imperatives in the funding of research all point in a similar direction.

Why would we therefore expect employment practices at Irish universities to be exempt from such an embrace?

Two responses suggest themselves. The first stresses the import of neo-liberal baggage into universities in many countries. A second answer highlights the woeful underfunding of third-level education in Ireland relative to other comparable countries and sees the proliferation of sub-standard or outsourced employment contracts as par for the course: we may not like it but what can you do?

And, lest we forget, a lot of these lamentable practices emerged as “creative” responses by universities to the passing of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act in 2009.

Neither of these rejoinders are entirely convincing, however. Much ink has been spilt over the social costs accruing within society as a result of many a university’s capitulation in face of the neoliberal onslaught (see in particular the recent work of Stefan Collini). Here and today, let us focus on the second response which is no less farcical, especially given that the partial rolling back of the act’s measures in recent years did not lead to a decrease in casualised and outsourced work at universities.

On the contrary: universities appear to have developed an appetite for the flexibility afforded by sub-standard contracts.

The costs attaching to this appetite are immense and are institutional, social and individual in kind. The latter, individual costs are perhaps the most obvious ones to consider: a job threatened with outsourcing and work delivered on short-term, non-secure and not pensionable contracts is not merely less desirable but also negatively affect a person’s well-being and health.

They do so through an often unacknowledged, indeed underhanded, competitive element that claims to reward commitment to a job – often measurable in unpaid overtime, which negatively impacts on the ability of individuals to fulfil socially important roles outside the university. But it is not only individuals who suffer. Rather, universities in turn undergo a fundamental change, which negatively impacts on the role they fulfil within society.

Universities appear to have developed an appetite for the flexibility afforded by sub-standard contracts

Since it is perceived to be easier to short-shrift teaching, rather than research, the proliferation of non-standard contracts further accentuates the cleavage between these two activities: here the issuance of sub-standard contracts meets (and often supports) the increased importance attaching to the securing of external research income and publications – which garner increased reputations, which in turn translate into a potentially higher university ranking. Thus the Fordist logic inducing increased forms of specialisation has finally arrived at the shores of the university. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, universities increasingly hire specialised researchers, teachers and administrative “leaders”, rather than encourage “research-led” teaching practices or forms of participatory self-governance.

Equally important is the fact that outsourcing and second-rate employment contracts – culminating in often-implied zero-hour contracts that take someone’s availability to do a job for granted – undermine the sense of collegiality that has motivated academic work for centuries. Where labour practices are eminently flexible, research goals and methods remain subject to constant change and teaching has to adapt to changing technologies and societal imperatives, creating work environments fuelled by unhealthy competitive urges over contracts, as opposed to ideas, is plain old counter-productive and detrimental to the delivery of a university’s core practices.

The constant rekindling of a future generation’s capacity to invent and sustain creative, critical and risk-embracing practices, becomes secondary to a managerial impulse seeking to minimise an institution’s commitment to its staff.

Here, then, the precarious and entrepreneurial university comes to resemble Hamilton and Dawkins’ selfish gene, with the gene in question resembling a managerial unit intent on multiplying easy-to-copy characteristics of universities within capitalist societies to safeguard their survival and potential proliferation.

What would an alternative look like?

It would advocate the deliberate co-operation and design of universities around shared values and institutionalise competition over how best to achieve shared goals. Outsourced employment practices and increasingly short-term contracts would not feature high on anyone’s list of proposed approaches most likely to improve the way universities deliver on the above goals.


Ulf Strohmayer is Professor of Geography at NUI Galway but is writing here in a private capacity.

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