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The Proliferation of Precarious Labour in Academia

by Alexander Gallas on February 27, 2018

The ‘Global Issues’ section of the current issue of the Global Labour Journal (GLJ) is dedicated to working conditions in academia. More specifically, it addresses a trend that appears to have become more pronounced across the globe in recent years: the precarisation of academic labour, which is reflected in the proliferation of termed contracts, low pay, unclear employment prospects and the existence of repressive governance strategies forcing academics out of their profession or even out of their country. In the Anglophone world, a small but growing body of newspaper articles and scholarly literature has been mapping this development (Wilson, 1991; Dearlove, 1997; Powelson, 2011; Birdsell Bauer, 2015; JCWS, 2017; McCarthy, Song and Jayasuriya, 2017). The section of the GLJ is an attempt to somewhat broaden and deepen this debate.

In line with the mission of the journal, one of our aims is also to show that precarious work in higher education is by no means specific to Anglophone universities or universities in the Global North. To illustrate this point, we have chosen to include country case studies not just on the United States, but also on Germany, South Africa and Turkey. All of those countries represent global or at least regional hubs in higher education and academic research – and in all of them, increasing numbers of academics are having to deal with precarity.

From a comparative perspective, it is important to note that precarity exists in different forms. Divergences are visible within countries, but they are even more pronounced across countries. In the US, teaching in universities is increasingly covered by “contingent faculty”, a group of academic workers badly affected by precarity, as Celeste Atkins, Louis E. Esparza, Ruth Milkman and Catherine L. Moran show in their article: they are faced with low wages, limited access to benefits and next to no employment security. In my own contribution, I highlight the specific situation of mid-level faculty in German higher education institutions: they have to deal with a de facto occupational ban if they do not advance into full professorships after a certain time, which are very difficult to obtain. In South Africa, fiscal constraints affect the working conditions of lecturers badly and reinforce a trend towards nationalism at the political level, as Chris Callaghan demonstrates in his contribution. Turkey is a different country case again: here, the dominant strategy emerging out of the repressive state apparatus directly undermines the security of academics who are critical of the Erdoğan regime. Academic critics of the president face occupational bans and jail – which is why, in many cases, they choose to go into exile. But, adding insult to injury, the precarisation of academic labour in their arrival countries means that their prospects of finding secure employment in their profession are limited. The authors of our contribution on Turkey, Tolga Tören and Melehat Kutun, now at the University of Kassel in Germany, are directly affected by what they are writing about.

In an introductory piece that I have written for the section, I call for analysing the meritocratic imaginary surrounding academic work, and how it creates a cognitive barrier for labour scholars to critically assess precarious working conditions in academia. So what can be done in a situation where such a barrier exists? The simplest response would be to create spaces where this imaginary can be questioned, and it is certainly an aim of this section to do so. The more we know about the proliferation of precarity in academia, the harder it is to sustain the idea of meritocracy. Consequently, this section is an invitation for scholars in the field of Global Labour Studies to bring to bear their conceptual and analytical tools on academic labour. It takes inspiration from the call by Bünger, Jergus and Schenk (2017: 101) for a more general self-reflection on work in academia with academic means.

What is needed is a collective effort and the constant attempt on the side of labour scholars to distance themselves from their own work environment in order to critically reflect on it. But this can be only the first step. We need to think about how to subvert, both individually and collectively, practices that are producing and legitimising precarity. And we must think hard about how to build and expand organisations inside the workplace that challenge the individualist status quo – be they existing higher education unions or new grassroots networks.

Admittedly, organising academics is by no means an easy task – unionisation rates tend to be low, and labour struggles take place infrequently. And yet, there is anecdotal evidence of a shift concerning the self-perceptions of academics. It may be premature to talk about an “insurrection in the learning factory”, as a recent article published by Spiegel Online, one of the most widely read German news platforms, was titled (Haeming, 2017). But the fact that there are struggles making headlines (BBC News 2013; Riemer 2013; Svrluga, 2016) shows that there are acts of resistance inside academia – and it is an important aim of our section to disseminate knowledge about those acts for others to take inspiration from them.


BBC News (2013) University staff on strike over pay, 31 October. Available at [accessed 16 January 2018].

Birdsell Bauer, L. (2015) Professors-in-Training or Precarious Workers? Identity, Coalition Building, and Social Movement Unionism in the 2015 University of Toronto Graduate Employee Strike. Labor Studies Journal, 42(4): 273–294.

Bünger, C., K. Jergus and S. Schenk (2017) Politiken des akademischen Mittelbaus. Einsatzpunkt einer Kritik im Medium der Wissenschaft. Berliner Debatte Initial, 28(1), 100–109.

Dearlove, J. (1997) The Academic Labour Process: From Collegiality and Professionalism to Managerialism and Proletarianisation? Higher Education Review, 30(1): 56–75.

Haeming, A. (2017) Aufstand in den Lernfabriken. Spiegel Online, 26 April. Available at [accessed 4 December 2017].

JWCS (2017) Academic Poverty Special Issue. Journal of Working Class Studies, 2(2).

McCarthy, G., X. Song and K. Jayasuriya (2017) The Proletarianisation of Academic Labour in Australia. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(5): 1017–1030.

Powelson, M.W. (2011) The Proletarianization of the Academy: California State University-Northridge and the California Budget Crisis. Workplace: A Journal of Academic Labour, 18: 10–24.

Riemer, N. (2013) Why is Sydney University on strike? Because students are not our ‘clients’. The Guardian, 30 August. Available at [accessed 16 January 2018].

Svrluga, S. (2016) Faculty strike ends at 14 Pennsylvania state universities. The Washington Post, 21 October. Available at [accessed 16 January 2018].

Wilson, T. (1991) The Proletarianisation of Academic Labour. Industrial Relations Journal, 22(4): 252–262.

Alexander Gallas
Alexander Gallas is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Kassel, and one of the editors of the Global Labour Journal. He has a PhD and an MA in Sociology, both from the University of Lancaster, and a Magister Artium in Philosophy from FU Berlin. In his monograph The Thatcherite Offensive: A Neo-Poulantzasian Analysis (Brill, 2015), he analyses the reorganisation of class relations under the Conservative governments in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s.

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