In Academia, All You Need is Love

Questions about Exploitation and Invisible Work in Academia

It is an open secret amongst academics that universities exploit the labour of their academic staff, and more importantly, that they exploit the unpaid labour of their academic staff. There are arguments for and against this – doesn’t every vocation evoke unpaid labour? Hasn’t academia always been a passion project for those who embody it? Why are the academics of today so hung up on the 40-hour working week anyway?

As an anthropologist who studies universities, I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions, and about whether and where the buck stops. After many months of in-depth ethnographic observation of a specific university for my PhD, and nearly 15 years of informal observations working and studying in universities, here are a few hypotheses to mull over. They’re not set in stone, at this point – and I’d love to hear what you think of them.

H1 (Hypothesis 1): Efficiency for the university does not equal efficiency for the academic

“Universities” (and by this I mean: a] the people who administrate in universities, and b] the policies that cause those people to administrate the way they do – which seems cyclical to me anyway) make decisions to make class sizes bigger or run lectures and large tutorials rather than the more intimate seminar method or having tutorials of 4 to 8 students, because it’s “more efficient” (check out Simon Marginson and Mark Considine’s excellent book The Enterprise University for more on how this works).

They do this, knowing that it will increase the amount of time that academics need to spend one-on-one in student meetings, or answering emails, or dealing with other forms of queries, given the lack of intimate contact that students can have with their instructors because of these decisions. And often, universities know that this means academics will not have time to do the things that the university puts most value on when they choose their promotion processes – those being publications and research impact.

They know that by essentially measuring the things that they don’t give their staff time to do during work hours (ie. research), they are almost guaranteeing that staff will work for free outside of hours to achieve the KPIs – Key Performance Indicators – that the university does measure. As one of my participants pointed out, ‘no-one can become a successful academic between the hours of nine and five’.

H2: Carrots for good research, sticks for bad teaching

It’s important to the university that they have both good teaching and good research outputs, in equal measure, to enhance their reputation in different ways. Therefore, they need to find ways to motivate academics to do both well. So how do they do that?

Firstly, by giving academics large class sizes but then measuring student satisfaction and grades. This way, they increase the likelihood of academics going above and beyond in their preparation, teaching and marking.

On one hand, for the academic, high student satisfaction and a class full of good grades is supposed to be reward in itself. On the other hand, if a teacher receives low student satisfaction or the class does not perform at or above the average, the teacher is responsible for these failings and will have this poor performance recorded in their performance plan, and against their KPIs. Because we have these in academia, these days.

When academics do go above and beyond in their teaching practice, this should (logically, although not always in practice) lead to happier students. Therefore, the reputation of the education provided by the university would be  maintained or improved. Therefore, the university would make money off the new students who subsequently enrol, or the alumni who return to undertake further degrees because they were so happy with their first one.

But all these happy current students are simply not enough. The university also needs their academics to be publishing prolifically in high level journals, as this is a crucial measure used to evaluate universities in the ranking systems like Times Higher Education or QS World University Ranking (for an interesting assessment of the different ranking systems, see Wake’s (2014) breakdown).

Various metrics have indicated that the higher a university is ranked, the more likely it is to attract good students (ie. good money via student fees) and good staff (ie. good money via research funding and better reputation, potentially leading to higher student numbers or better quality student applications, leading to even more ‘good money’).

The university thus needs to be ranked highly, and needs its staff to be excellent teachers and excellent researchers, who can demonstrate measurable outcomes of all that excellence. So to achieve this, they link those outcomes to the promotion path via the sticks (punishment for bad teaching scores) and carrots (rewards for prolific publishing) strategy.  And if an academic wants to get ahead in their career, they will inevitably need to work outside of hours to get that work done.

That sounds much like a systematic, structural form of exploitation. So if that hypothesis was correct, how would they be getting away with that?

The answer, I hypothesise, is Love.

H3: Love lifts us up where we belong… but at what cost?

I think love is the big problem here.My research has affirmed for me that academics, at least when they start out, do indeed love academia. They love research, or they love teaching at a university level. Or, perhaps they just love being in a job that allows them (so they initially believe) to be creative with their reading and their writing, or have autonomy in their workplace.

More often than not, they truly believe in whatever they believe the mission of universities to be, too. But whatever the reason, they genuinely love it when they go into this profession.

And as a consequence, “the university” can exploit that love and say, “Well, if you want to stay, (and we know you do), then you’ll have to achieve x, y and z.”

But there’s more to it than that. It’s the next bit that’s the real zinger.

“If you want to stay, you’ll have to achieve x, y and z, and by this specified time. But who are we to tell you – you, who values autonomy and the freedom to work where and when it’s convenient to you outside of your class time – who are we to tell you how to achieve those goals? So we’re not telling you what to do, we know you’ll work that out for yourself because you’re super smart; you’re an academic. We’re just telling you what we need from you as an outcome.”

But wait, there’s more…

“Oh, and by the way, when you do work out how you’re going to achieve x, y and z by that specified time, here’s six million forms to fill out, to justify why you chose that path and how your choices benefit the university, because not just anyone can work here you know. It’s a privilege, and you need to prove that you are worthy of that privilege if you want to stay. And we know you do.”

H4: Not all work in academia counts as ‘work’

So now let’s explore that in terms of ‘invisible work’ (Star and Strauss, 1999). Invisible work can (and will, in my PhD thesis) be conceptualised as the practical, cognitive and affective work that an employee needs to do in order to be successful in their job, but that is not specified in their job description or accounted for in their KPIs. It’s not even the unpaid labour we discussed above. It’s a whole other level of work that’s unaccounted for.

The tricksy thing that I suggest universities do (it’s very clever really), is to make the overall outcomes, and the consequences of not meeting those outcomes, highly visible. Publish or perish! Student satisfaction or be slain! (okay, I made that last one up, but the sentiment is accurate).

Now, it’s not so much that the work that goes into achieving those visible outcomes is entirely invisible (although parts of it probably are). Even when it’s not officially counted towards anything, most university administrators know about it, in my experience, because they’ve been academics so they generally do remember what work needs to be done.

They still recall, sometimes with pride, the many hours of marking in the evening or on the weekend; the late night skype meetings with co-authors on other continents (because the university needs to internationalise!); the intellectual exhaustion of trying to write something intelligent on that grant proposal after a full day of teaching. Then there’s that emotional agony of feeling incompetent as you race towards constant deadlines; the uncomfortable tension of trying to be the best, better than your colleagues (no matter how much you like them and wish them well), because there’s only one promotion position available, and you aren’t keeping up with your mortgage payments/kid’s school fees/parent’s medical bills on a Level B salary.

These are things that I hear from academics in my research all the time, and is just as surely not completely invisible to administrators, particularly those who’ve been through it themselves.

I would propose, then, that it’s not that this work is invisible, it’s that “universities” have their eyes closed. It’s a lot easier to miss flaws in your system if you’re deliberately not looking.

But, to be fair to “the university”, I don’t believe that this is because administrators are evil people, or that the system has been designed to make people miserable.

I think it’s more that the buck never stops.

Academics blame their managers. Managers are often themselves on contracts that can be terminated if they don’t perform, so they feel compelled to toe the “company” line because they have mortgages/school fees/sick parents too.

Managers blame university policies written and enforced by university administrators and policy makers.

Administrators and policy makers blame market forces and government policies and the neoliberal agenda that they themselves railed against, back in their day.

You see where I’m going, right?

Unfortunately though, once you get to this level of abstraction, there’s no one left to be able to DO anything, because market forces can’t be appealed to, and government policies often appear… if not immutable, at the very least, difficult to change.

H6: The neoliberal agenda and invisibility to whom?

And then there’s this whole, massive, ‘neoliberal agenda’ thing. Who, and I mean who specifically, is pushing the neoliberal agenda? It’s spoken of, almost exclusively, as one would say the “Nazi agenda” or perhaps in this day and age, the “Trumpian agenda”. So very few people at any level of the higher education sector are going to say, ‘oh, yes, the neoliberal agenda in higher education has just been the best thing, don’t you think?’

So who is actually to blame?

Who does the neoliberal agenda specifically benefit, and why, and how, and do those beneficiaries even know that they are benefitting from a neoliberal agenda? And if they do, do they know the consequences of that? I’m thinking perhaps not. At least not always.

So it seems to me that the truly invisible work of academia is actually invisible to everyone – it’s the work that is going on to maintain the network of “the neoliberal higher education agenda”, whatever that may be, and however that may manifest. But it’s invisible in the way that the universe is invisible, even though we all know it’s there and are relatively confident that we’re part of it.

But how do you change the universe?

                                                                           [Feature image adapted by Jodie-Lee Trembath based on                                                                             vectors created by Graphicrepublic at]

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