The pandemic has called attention to the essential work in universities—after all, most research can slow down (I mean, for those who have a permanent contract) but modules have to be delivered. Lecturers, many of them held/hold fixed-term contracts were asked to make contingency plans in a week, then moved to online teaching in a day notice. They endured and they persevered, and then some of them were furloughed and/or dismissed because the universities are expecting huge income loss in the next few years.
The pandemic has also deepened the anxiety, distress and uncertainty of postdocs, according to a Nature survey. For some, it has been impossible to collect data or conduct experiments for a few months, while their postdoc contracts and their institutional affiliation are coming to an end. Meanwhile, it is expected that research budget and hiring will be substantially cut. The chance of getting the next gig, or a permanent position, becomes increasingly slim.
So often, teaching and research staff on precarious contracts cannot even be found on the university websites, although they have been on the frontline teaching and tutoring our undergraduate students. In her essay, On Being Precarious, Deirdre Flynn asks, “Do they [the students] know the university education they are paying dearly for is staffed by people who sometimes are not even paid for their work? How does the high staff turnover and job insecurity impact on the quality of their degree? I’d like to see them graduate, and achieve, and follow their academic progression but the gig economy won’t allow us.”
Many have pointed out the mental health and labour issues associated with precarious contracts in academia: The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited report, and The Precarious Postdoc, and the Nature survey. Some have shared their experience after leaving academia and why we should be paid four hundred and fifty dollars for peer review. What are the reasons behind the drive to gig work in universities? Is it academic capitalism, meritocracy, radical responsibilization, and/or projectification of doctoral training? How many gig workers are there in universities and research institutions whose work is on demand and who are not entitled to sick leave, health insurance, and pension/retirement benefits?
Inspired by the term, ‘platform university’, I wonder if universities will become a platform where casualisation of work becomes normalised and creates a class of contractors in a gig academy. The gig academy is where researchers can make use of the university infrastructure (physical and digital) if they are funded. Lecturers can offer their modules if the topics are on demand. Authors can access articles and books behind the paywall if they publish in channels approved by the university. In the gig academy, teachers, researchers, and authors are remunerated based on the amount of contents they deliver, possibly using a point system (e.g., 4-star modules and publications are priced higher). The university as a platform does not offer career development or guarantee safe and healthy working conditions. It is but an intermediary, not a mediator.
The recent OECD report, Resourcing Higher Education, has highlighted the harmful consequences of extensive casualisation of academic staff, suggesting that the low retention of researchers, teachers, and students and lower quality of teaching and learning. Will the post-pandemic university consider the gig academy as a threat or a solution? And what are the implications and consequences of Uberification of universities for students, researchers, knowledge production and education?
Dr Lai Ma is Assistant Professor at School of Information and Communication Studies at University College Dublin, Ireland. She is currently working on a few projects in the area of research on research, focusing on the epistemic and social consequences of evaluative metrics, impact, peer review, and casualisation of work. She teaches scholarly communication to keep herself up-to-date on all things about research evaluation and research policy.