Few people working in higher education today could fail to notice three major trends. First, the purpose of higher education institutions has turned emphatically towards the needs of the market. Second, the content, organization, distribution, and rewards of work in higher education have changed in dramatic and deeply felt ways. Third, the effects of these two interrelated processes continue to drive waves of collective organizing and struggle in higher education, even while such resistance is uneven and intertwined with individual strategies of coping, consent, or exit. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on higher education institutions has further intensified these trends, raising questions about what post-pandemic higher education will look like and who it will serve.
Neoliberalization as the commodification of higher education
The past three decades have marked a neoliberal transformation of higher education. In terms of purpose, higher education is now oriented to the needs of the market. Higher education institutions must increasingly serve the needs of private employers for research and labor supply that will allow them to succeed in a competitive global economy. Higher education institutions themselves have become subject to market discipline, competing for students, their tuition dollars, and whatever government funding accompanies those students, as well as the investments or philanthropy of private donors who shape the university’s purpose with their financial clout. Most observers of the “corporatization of higher education” note that transformations in internal decision-making norms and procedures have ensued, with corporate-style structures centralizing power in the senior administration and displacing collegial governance in which faculty and other constituencies played a greater role. Market orientation also takes the form of both budgetary constraint and the use of performance indicators to structure internal and external competitions for resources. These transformations are also evident in the content of educational programs, which now must attract students seeking a valuable credential in the labor market and must therefore prove their job relevance rather than their development of critical skills and perspectives.
Work reorganization: the implementation of neoliberal work regimes
Work reorganization is an essential component of the neoliberalization of higher education because new academic labor processes and power relations are needed to implement this vision of market-oriented education. Concretely, higher education labor processes have been subject to fragmentation of academic labor into its teaching, research, and service components, the deskilling of those assigned to these different components, and the cheapening of their increasingly replaceable labor. The rise of temporary contracts in both teaching and research is evident throughout higher education, a change that both saves money and heightens administrative control, as precariously employed contract holders rarely participate in collegial governance. Work intensification accompanies fragmentation and the heightened climate of competition for both the scarce “good jobs” as well as the precarious contracts on offer. This intensified work also entails a significant component of emotional labor. Students’ evolving expectations of what their education is meant to provide is also driven by neoliberal conceptions of the university, and this requires faculty to manage those expectations in new ways. Finally, we see the elaboration of forms of upward accountability and downward surveillance as workers’ productivity becomes central to the bottom line of higher education institutions. The curriculum vitae becomes the academic’s stopwatch, which they use to discipline themselves to the neoliberal labor process.
Post-pandemic higher education: more of the same or space for alternatives?
The COVID-19 pandemic has served to further intensify these three trends – commodification and centralization, work reorganization and intensification, and conflict and resistance. Emergency conditions have allowed higher education administrators to further centralize decision-making during the pandemic and do end runs around collegial bodies to develop policies and practices. Decisions about whether and when to return to in-person teaching and what workplace health and safety protections would be provided have been flash points of conflict. Faculty’s concerns about the factors driving the return to work – namely administrators’ desire to protect market share and budgets rather than the health and well-being of community members – and a lack of meaningful influence over these decisions, have led to growing feelings of mistrust, anger, resentment, and disengagement.
The pandemic has also resulted in a significant intensification of work. Faculty have had to quickly adapt to emergency online teaching and operations, learning new technologies and skills. Faculty were also faced with heightened expectations to perform emotional labor and respond to a range of student needs as they attempted to pursue education while coping with illness, death, job loss, and generalized anxiety about the future. Faculty had to absorb and manage student feelings while managing their own fears, often in a context where working from home meant the need to mind children who were also engaged in online school from home. All this has taken place in a context where research productivity expectations have not been reduced, which itself further advantages faculty who are structurally more privileged in this already highly stratified sector.
COVID fatigue, heightened faculty resentment towards administration, and the austerity measures meant to restore the sector’s finances are leading to forms of collective resistance. While the incidence of strikes in higher education took a nosedive in the early days of the pandemic, we now see an uptick of militancy and labor disruptions on campus. This is most evident in the post-secondary strike wave spreading across Canada and the UK in early 2022. While pandemic conditions work to make collective action more difficult, they also have created some fertile ground as higher education workers feel more alienated than ever from their administrations.
Whether resistance through strike action will transform the neoliberal university post-pandemic is still an open question. What is clearer, however, is that external political and economic pressures will almost certainly continue to shape and drive demands from university administrators to reorganize work and decision-making processes in ways that will breed anger, resentment, and potentially even more militancy among academic workers.
Stephanie Ross, McMaster University, Canada and member of ISA Research Committee on Labour Movements (RC44) <firstname.lastname@example.org> Larry Savage, Brock University, Canada <email@example.com>