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The Precarity of Academic Labour

Divya Kannan

As higher education increasingly becomes corporatized and governments withdraw support without engaging in reforms, the biggest casualty has been teachers/lecturers in higher education institutions across the globe. India has not been immune to this worrying trend in the past many years which is generally known as the contractualisation of academic labour. The lack of political will and the nexus between business and private capital have fast converted higher education into a marketable commodity. What was once considered an essential public good and a responsibility of governments has turned into an easy money-making scheme. However, the lives of university teaching staff, crucial in the transmission and generation of disciplinary knowledge have become precarious and insecure, resulting in mental health issues, mounting debt, and unstable futures for themselves and their families.

Employment in the academic labour market is segmented into “full-time, permanent” and “part/ full-time adjunct” teaching staff, apart from a host of administrative, non-teaching staff. The former is now a narrowing pool of academicians who enjoy the privileges of tenure as well as various employment benefits in return for their work involving a mix of teaching and research. However, the bulk of university work comes upon the large army of contract labour, hired on temporary work-contracts, with inadequate social security benefits, research funds, and no guarantee of a permanent, tenured, position in the near future. Adjunct or ad-hoc work contract, as it is called in India, for instance, has sounded the death knell for the research and employment prospects of scores of graduate scholars, including women. Contract labour has become the norm rather than the exception in universities and colleges with dangerous consequences for the future of universities, including students.

What does contractualisation in academic labour entail? As universities come to be run by a cohort of educational managers, administrators and consultants, the work conditions of lecturers/teachers have become difficult and in many cases, exploitative. The irony is that the fees paid by students have risen over the past few years and yet, the money does not go into improving teacher salaries, enhancing research funds or making work contracts permanent. Instead, in the name of institutional autonomy, many universities have turned into hiring more contract labour to meet the market demands for professional courses.  Overworked and underpaid temporary staff handle the majority of teaching and related responsibilities. In a violation of basic labour rights, adjunct academic labour, especially women, have to undertake both academic labour within the classroom and engage in various administrative and service capacities for limited returns. Job insecurity and lack of organized union strength have aggravated their difficult working lives, forcing many college lecturers, even in countries such as the UK to juggle more than one contractual job at a time.

Despite the attainment of high-end and specialized degrees such as doctorates across disciplines, the temporary contract nature of jobs have affected women terribly. Female academics have been hit hard in this changed economic scenario, as they have to compete in the higher education sector first, as students, and later, as prospective labourers to gain the available adjunct positions. With the widening gap between the small group of permanent staffers and the huge numbers of contract lecturers, women have no choice but to sign contracts with no guarantee of their rights to work. For instance, ad-hoc teachers in colleges across the prestigious Delhi University have been long denied maternity benefits, despite the mandate by the Supreme Court that women employees in the contract and temporary occupations must also be provided six months maternity leave as per the Maternity Benefits Act. This has led to protracted legal struggles against hostile university authorities that women must endure at heavy personal and professional costs. Applications for paid leave may be denied due to their position as contract workers and many face a sudden loss of a job or leave without pay. Similarly, if instances of sexual harassment at the workplace arise, the female complainant on the contract is disadvantaged from the start and struggles to receive a fair trial. Universities treat contract workers with bare respect and are aware that demands will be muffled due to prevailing unemployment in the country.

Similarly, university administrations have started catering more to changing market forces, and there is a continuous devaluation of research, particularly in subjects such as the social sciences and humanities. Basic research facilities are denied to ad-hoc teaching staff without research funds, and no salary hikes or infrastructure to accommodate their research interests. Instead, undergraduate teaching thrives in a sphere of mediocrity. For female teachers who face various professional and societal hurdles, the lack of job certainty and non-availability of funds hamper the quality of their research. In India, the present BJP regime is even contemplating doing away with ad-hoc contracts and replacing those posts with ‘guest-positions’ with a fixed lump-sum salary for a particular period of time; a further devaluation of form, value, and content of academic labour.

With private players exploiting the decline of well-established public universities and the rising wage gap among staff, the life of the ad-hoc teacher hangs in thin air. Academic labour, despite its creative and intellectual potential, becomes a mere commodity in this chain of knowledge production, with teachers as mechanical employees with no real freedom. This is not an India-centric trend but linked to the larger assault unleashed on higher educational institution across countries. The pushing of foreign universities to open a campus in developing nations and the insistence on “professional, industry-specific” jobs has led to the denial of political rights for contract academic labour such as the right to unionize and vote in university matters.  For female labour staff, the burden is multi-fold. Marital prospects or maternity choices become restricted as the job insecurity worsens and the number of permanent positions dwindles. Long prevailing societal biases continue to be held against educated women wishing to enter the job market. Lack of support from university administrations and excessive work pressures such as long teaching hours have worsened their status at the workplace. At the same time, female academics also suffer from a lack of autonomy and incentives to pursue their research without the threat of job loss. Recent research surveys have shown that contract female teaching staff in academia does the bulk of labour outside the classroom such as serving on committees, cultural forums, journals, mentoring etc. This mirrors their roles as traditional ‘carers’ and ‘homemakers’ in the familial spheres as well without any due acknowledgment. Since academic labour is largely conducted without remuneration (no payment for writing/publishing in journals, participation in various administrative capacities, supervision of cultural activities and students affairs), this has placed an undue burden on female labour staff who tread on hire-and-fire contractual agreements and hesitate to say no to their superiors.

Thus, there exists no mutual relationship between academic staff as employees and what the university demands as an employer. In such cases, we see many individuals compelled to leave academia altogether. In other words, casualization of academic labour is akin to glorified slavery in many ways. Perhaps the title of an assistant/associate/senior professor brings with it symbolic and cultural capital and social recognition, but in terms of material value and a sense of certainty and fulfillment, there is barely anything to trust.  For women who fight all odds to make it to the hallowed corridors of universities, such a state of being hampers their progress and potential to lead meaningful lives.

Divya Kannan is an Assistant Professor of History at Shiv Nadar University.