By Professor Doom
In the US, most college courses are now taught by adjuncts: minimally paid “temporary” professors who will work at the same job for 15 years or more before realizing they’re being played for suckers.
Now, yes, I know things are tough all over, and lots of people are struggling to get by on minimum wage (though adjuncts actually get paid less than minimum wage, thanks to quirks in the law). There’s a difference here, and it’s not simply the bias of someone who works in higher ed.
We’re burying our kids in debt, in exchange for education. We’re told constantly that no price is too great for education. We’re told nothing is more valuable than education. And we’re told this repeatedly from a very young age.
So, yes, it’s a real problem when we take our academics, who supposedly have all this precious education…and pay them less than minimum wage. You can’t have it both ways: either being educated is worth something (so we should pay academics a living wage), or it’s not (so we shouldn’t charge ridiculous amounts for it).
The UK is steadily adopting the American method of higher education: low content, high price. It’s been depressing watching them make all the same mistakes that we made over here, and, yes, one of those mistakes is the very poor treatment of the academics:
The takeover of higher education by an administrative class with no education, and no respect for education, has, as anyone might guess, been bad for education.
I hated it when I was at a skeezy community college, being lectured on how to teach by a Dean that had never taught a course in her life, much less taught mathematics, much less even had a degree in anything remotely resembling mathematics. And every semester yet another mandatory meeting where yet another Educationist who’d never taught a course would lecture all the faculty for a few hours on even more ridiculous methods of teaching that obviously weren’t going to work…honest, it wasn’t like this when actual educators had influence over education.
Even more insulting about it all is admin gets to control the pay. They have a choice: pay themselves and the faculty, or just pay themselves, and watch the faculty starve. The latter has basically what’s happened in the US, and is now happening in the UK. I should point out that not only is this bad for faculty, it’s also bad for the kids: across the country, our college students are often going deep into debt to be taught by the cheapest possible faculty admin could find, and often this is because the faculty are teaching the most worthless coursework possible (honest, it’s not an accident Gender Studies courses are taught in huge auditoriums everywhere, while real computer courses are simply not an option on many campuses).
One friend, employed on three consecutive one-year teaching contracts in the same department, wasn’t even told that he hadn’t been shortlisted for interview when the job was advertised again.
It’s not merely the poor pay and horrid working conditions that are foul, it’s the complete lack of respect. I had a friend, a Ph.D. in mathematics with publications, show up the first week of classes asking where his office was. Only then did admin decide telling him his contract had been cancelled was worth doing…they could have told him 6 months earlier, but since admin no longer lives like faculty, the concept was alien to them.
And the UK is now adopting this sort of treatment policy.
What percentage of your salary can you afford to spend on trains and extra rent? (One academic household I know has actually developed a formula to crunch the numbers). But with employment conditions getting increasingly dire, we now also have somehow to attempt to determine whether the pay we take home will even equate to the minimum wage.
--minimum wage is what government imposes on private business, but it exempts itself from such rules.
One of the weird changes in higher education in the last 20 years is how faculty are no longer tied to an institution. It used to be that you spent the bulk of your career in one or two universities (even the ridiculously in-demand Einstein spent most of his career in two places)…you had a vested interest in making your school great, in having integrity and working to produce good graduates, because it reflected well on you, your family, and your future.
Now it’s common for adjuncts to work at 3 different schools simultaneously, spending as much time commuting as teaching, each doing 1/3 of a full time job at each school. It saves admin enough money to afford those 6 and 7 digit salaries the administrators receive (for all the hard work they put in hiring a bunch of adjuncts).
Instead of 3 adjuncts working 3 part time jobs at 3 different schools, each place could give each of them a full time job. Gee, this would save a fortune on gasoline, and would allow the teachers to spend more time on their families, or in preparation for their students. Admin sure talks a good talk about the environment, about family time, and about helping students, but they’re not going to lift a finger if doing anything about it might cut into feathering their own nests, after all.
If things get tight on your academic’s salary of under £15,000, perhaps you can pick up a few bar shifts or freelance gigs.
--at current exchange rates this is less than $16,000 in US money, and the poverty level here is $20,000…like I said, the UK is adopting the US higher education system quite thoroughly.
Even though these are “part time” positions, the teaching loads are quite heavy. This is bad, because in order to get hired as an academic, you have to have a record of research as well as teaching…a record you can’t establish if you’re working triple shifts at 3 universities just to get by.
If you can get research done, realize it counts for nothing in your current job, it just means you might get another adjunct job down the road.
Academics in the UK are feeling the squeeze academics in the US felt a decade or two ago:
And this demand for unpaid research is where the gradual creep of exploitation really starts to rub. We’ve got used to nine- and 10-month contracts and how they make maternity leave, caring responsibilities, and mortgages almost impossible; how they effectively exclude from academia anyone who lacks a middle-class safety net. We’re used to working many more hours than we’re paid for, at every level, from graduate teaching assistants like me to the professoriate. We’re getting used to the fact that research and publications will have to be done late at night and through the weekend, often without payment.
When I was in graduate school, I was surrounded by many smart graduate students. Strangely, the smartest ones, the ones I went to for help, left, often without getting a degree well within their grasp. They saw what I was too dim to see: higher education was not the good career choice it was years ago.
The adjunct I’m quoting from (and making these observations anonymously, of course) is starting to see that what’s happening in the UK is what smart people saw in the US years ago:
Maybe you would be better just going full-time at that minimum-wage job instead.