The New York Times, Slate and Al Jazeera have recently drawn attention to the adjunctification of the professoriate in the US. Only 24 per cent of the academic workforce are now tenured or tenure-track.
Much of the coverage has focused on the sub-poverty wages of adjunct faculty, their lack of job security and the growing legions of unemployed and under-employed PhDs. Elsewhere, the focus has been on web-based learning and the massive open online courses (MOOCs), with some commentators celebrating and others lamenting their arrival.
The two developments are not unrelated. Harvard recently asked its alumni to volunteer their time as “online mentors” and “discussion group managers” for an online course. Fewer professors and fewer qualified – or even paid – teaching assistants will be required in higher education’s New Order.
Lost amid the fetishisation of information technology and the pathos of the struggle over proper working conditions for adjunct faculty is the deeper crisis of the academic profession occasioned by neoliberalism. This crisis is connected to the economics of higher education but it is not primarily about that.
The neoliberal sacking of the universities runs much deeper than tuition fee hikes and budget cuts.
Thatcherite budget-cutting exercise
The professions are in part defined by the fact that they are self-governing and self-regulating. For many years now, the professoriate has not only been ceding power to a neoliberal managerial class, but has in many cases been actively collaborating with it.
As a dose of shock capitalism, the 2008 financial crisis accelerated processes already well underway. In successive waves, the crisis has hit each pillar of the American university system. The initial stock market crash blasted the endowments of the prestige private universities. Before long, neoliberal ideologues and their disastrous austerity policies undermined state and eventually federal funding for universities and their research.