Defending academics or transforming the university?

John Hennessy, chairperson of the Higher Education Authority and former head of Ericsson Ireland, has taken another swipe at the working conditions and freedom of academics, as reported in last Thursday’s Irish Times. No doubt many academics and researchers will see in this another attempt to extend private sector rationalities to the university, forcing researchers and teachers into meaningless competition and undermining the autonomy upon which both research and learning rests.

Yet, while it may not be popular in ‘left’ circles to argue this, things look quite different from the perspective of undergraduate and, to an extent, post-graduate students.

Many undergraduate students feel short-changed by theiruniversity education. Students all too frequently struggle to navigate badly designed uninspiring courses taught by lectures who seem disillusioned and demoralized. There is also the issue of academic salaries. This is especially clear in the case of post-graduate students who often do more than their fair share of teaching and correction for a faction of a lecturer’s salary. Take my own case. I’m a PhD student at the Department of Sociology in Trinity College, where I get 8,000 euros per year for undertaking 6 hours class time per week as well as 50% of corrections for in-course assessment. While my ‘studentship’ amounts to about 25% of the average industrial wage, the lectures with whom post-graduate students work are often earning upwards of 80,000 and some senior academics are earning much larger salaries. These experiences leave many with little appetite for defending the pay and conditions of academics.

This leaves us with the political conundrum of what position to take in relation to academic working conditions, at a time when a political response to the crisis of the university is urgently required.

On greater reflection, there are a number of contradictions here. One the one hand, some academics receives wages which are not justifiable. On the other hand, academics are victims of the same attack as other workers in the university and more generally. The attack on academics is also part of the same general attack on public services which affects us all.

Students are generally unaware of the multiple pressures on academic staff and the university’s prioritization of research over teaching. The sometimes inadequate teaching we find at the university is not necessarily the result of ‘laziness’, it is structurally caused by the pointless obsession with racking up publication points to which funding within the university is now tied. Moreover, more and more academics are on short term contracts.

How to negotiate these contradictions? If we attack lecturers we side with the neo-liberal camp, as the USI has. But if we defend their working conditions than we are left defending an academy which is riddled with problems- and for many people the thought of defending the pay of academics earning in excess of 100,000 a year is difficult to swallow.

Here we come back to some of the fundamental problems with the politics of ‘defending public services’. Defending the conditions of academics is a limited and particularistic strategy, unlikely to resonate with students or more widely. It also seems to reproduce or at least not contest the existing hierarchical organization of labor (is the freedom of an academic more important than the freedom of, say, a nurse?). Most importantly, it seems to fall short of confronting the more general subordination of the university to the economy- and the impact this has on the university. What we are witnessing is a qualitative transformation in the relationship between knowledge and economics which is reducing the university to the R&D department of capitalism.

It has to be said that lecturers have generally failed to communicate these transformations to students. This is an absolutely crucial task given the students union (and their publications) ‘black out’ on any thing relating to the corpratisation of the university. Undergraduate students, or so I gather from my experience of trying to raise awareness of these issues on campus, are simply oblivious to the realities of research matrix, cuts to core funding, knowledge transfer and so on.

In this context defending the working and pay conditions of academics, under the guise of defending public services, is a deeply inadequate and particularistic response.

A more valuable position might be for workers and students in the university to come together in struggling to transform the university, to democratize knowledge, to undo the hierarchies of expertise, to make relevant the university to the key political questions of today and to confront the neo-liberalization of the university. An inspiring example of this was the Beyond the Crisis event which took place in early May, an even which took the university outside itself.

This kind of position wriggles out of the false opposition between defending academics and neo-liberalising the university. For the moment, such a politics can only be experimental, but these kinds of experiments hold, it seems to me, the only hope for politicizing the universities in a manner which could potentially prevent their destruction.

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4 Responses to Defending academics or transforming the university?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Defending academics or transforming the university?

  2. cormac says:

    Interesting blog. I must say I don’t know of any fellow lecturers on salaries over 80k -This is close to the maximum of the scale, unless you go into management, or you’re a Professor, a very senior position.
    Re research publications, the problem is that good teaching at 3rd level requires one needs to be research-informed!)

  3. owen says:

    Does undoing”the hierarchies of expertise” mean that you will not be in future need of a supervisor.

  4. I agree that research and teaching can work together, but as Mike Neary, dean of teaching at Lincoln college, said at a recent conefernce, in today’s university these two activities often work against each other rather than in tandem. The resonates with my experience of talking to academics.

    I’m no expert on salaries but I think in my department a senior lecturer makes 75,000 a year. I’m not sure how representative that is though.

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