Working in HE – an alienating labour of love?

As academics, we tend to describe our work as a “labour of love”. Senior managers and policymakers are happy to play up ideas of academic work as contributing to the public good, which makes it tempting to see the university in utopian terms. All too frequent deviations from this idea – including stories of exploitation, mental and physical distress, overwork, clumsy performance management, precarious contracts, and a feeling that we have lost control of our own efforts – add to a feeling of alienation among staff in HE.

Most writing about this state of affairs has focused on the machinery of academia (working at a university would be great if it wasn’t for REF/TEF/KEF/performance management, etc) or the mechanics of marketisation. The arguments make attempts to defend the public university and push for policy or managerial responses with the institution or sector as the focus. But there’s very little analysis that looks at what academics and professional staff actually do all day, and how alienation affects the people that carry out this work.

Alienation defined and explored

In the critical and analytical tradition of social theory, alienation is a useful concept to talk about exploitative conditions in academia as it lets us separate attempts to address the issue from the actuality of what it feels like to live within them, to produce and share knowledge while subject to them, and to struggle against them.

Through a kind of “workers’ enquiry” into the conditions of academic labour – and the labour of all who work and study in higher education – we could gain a better understanding of what is actually happening. Power, and debt in many forms, has changed the nature of what goes on at university from a craft to a service – from a space where individual expertise and capabilities are valued, to one where metrics and targets attempt to standardise processes and practices. This is similar to other service industries, so we can learn from looking at what has happened in similar settings, and how this state of affairs can be successfully resisted on a local and personal level. It is important to see such resistance to alienating conditions and relationships connected to other struggles.

As a result, we see how such a situation plays out (anxiety, overwork, a feeling of disconnection, the attractions of leaving academia) is connected both to the decisions of policymakers and managers, and to the wider struggles in society. On an individual level, reactions to what is being done are not a sign of weakness or deficiency – they are a change in the way work “works” in academia from the idea of a public good to the lived experience of working for private benefit.

A loss of agency

I’ve been thinking and writing about these issues as I put together my recent monograph – “The Alienated Academic“. One thing that struck me was the fact we see academic labour as a privilege blinds us to how unhealthy and alienating it can be, both in terms of our own work and the way we relate to colleagues. Ideas around the student experience and value for money may seem to make sense, but the way they are implemented and driven by metrics and performance targets gives us (the people who work in universities) less control, and thus less agency over how these are put into practice. Things like regulations, media panics over “grade inflation”, and league tables become fetishes – all linking back to the overarching ideological impositions of competition, productivity and economic growth.

Miserable academic and support staff cannot be good for the student experience – a high turnover of tutors disconnected from both their work and the institution must have an impact on learning. Practices like out-of-hours working, the development of resilience, and the need for continued mandatory “upskilling” are designed to make academics compete against each other – the old idea of a community of scholarship that includes students and support staff is nearly impossible to maintain if we are all alienated from each other and what we do.

A labour of love

This is a re-engineering of higher education. Performance management and the idea of “the student at the heart of the system” are expressions of the same state of affairs that have seem academics presenting the destructive and self-harming symptoms described above. But despite this we struggle for – rather than against – academic practice. The logic of competition and marketisation is actually helped by our “labour of love”, even though this labour is hurting us and the people we work with – and for many underrepresented groups is impossible to maintain.

As people who work in HE with expertise in describing and analysing context and impact we should be able to see beyond this – and we should be able to struggle for autonomy and safe working practices, both for ourselves and wider society. There is a dignity in making an active choice to improve working conditions and making an attempt to see the wider implications of the pain we are experiencing. Emancipation, and control over the way we choose to live, is both an worthwhile and an achievable goal – and in the fullest sense of the word it is revolutionary. There are already some spaces for academic work that celebrate and share the richness of life – we need more of these spaces.

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