Enough Outsourcing of Precarity

Let me start by stipulating that some of my observations here are more related to the European job market, which is characterized by the dominance of public universities and national-level policy implementation options, conditions that do not map onto the United States perfectly. Still, there are more similarities than differences.

Europe is a continent that encompasses broad inequalities between East and West, North and South, and higher education is no exception. The post-1989 EU integration process promised to bridge these gaps, but has rather exacerbated them. In the East and South public higher education remains underfunded, and these universities lose more and more of their students to a North- and West-bound brain drain. Yet the fact is that many of these universities are nepotistic, closed off from regional or international debates. Their staff often carry out contract work alongside their university appointment to make a living. Research budgets are meager, and even when universities do align themselves with continental priorities, they are marginalized and invisible in European funding schemes. Marketization and performance measures are slowly creeping in, not, unfortunately, with systemic improvement in sight, but rather with a lust for participation in global rankings. In this context, anthropology largely consists in outdated ethnological science. Its practitioners serve as fixers, secondhand informants for Western scholars working in the crisis-struck region, who theorize local data collected by local colleagues and students.

The North and West is marked by opposite tendencies: following international and European imperatives, many countries have scrapped or drastically reduced block grants for institutions. Research has been made dependent on competitive external funding through national and European schemes. Growing student fees support the core budget of universities that sponsor permanent positions. Many research positions appear and disappear according to short funding cycles, with postdocs and research associates trotting the continent for stints lasting between a few months and a few years in search for stable support. At the same time, as permanent faculty serve as principal investigators on research grants requiring a great deal of management, (self-)promotion, and production of deliverables, the replacement teaching that is used to support sabbaticals has reached unprecedented levels. These underfunded, underpaid, precarious, and invisible sessional positions are often cynically described as “full-time equivalents.” They are generally undertaken by women and caregivers, who stay rooted in place to discharge their personal and professional duties. In this context, anthropology suffers from challenges similar to those of the other social sciences: a push to publish or perish, dependence on performance measures and funding cycles, and pressures to prove its product commercializable and its students employable.

The recent strike in the United Kingdom—a fourteen-day industrial action across over sixty universities, prompted by the alleged deficit in the universities’ pension fund—has broken some of the contradictions open. While university staff have been divested of benefits, casualized, outsourced, or pressed by grueling performance measures and workloads, a new managerial class of vice-chancellors and senior managers has emerged. In preserving and boosting their own lucrative salaries, benefits, and housing privileges, they have run universities as corporate CEOs, making decisions to the detriment of students, faculty, and staff. While expanding enrollments and increasing fees, they have reduced permanent staff numbers and put an ever-growing, similarly precarious workforce in place to defuse conflicts between management and academic staff. Investing public funds, notoriously including pension funds, into infrastructure that (along with the academic labor that operates it) can be leased out cheaply to the private sector, they outsource public resources for private gain. And, while faculty and students showed incredible resilience and solidarity during the recent strike, the reserve army of migrant workers from the East and South poses an impending challenge: without addressing inequalities across Europe, disparities can easily be used to quell discontent and preserve the status quo.

Where does this leave us when we speak of the contemporary university and the future of anthropology? After reading the initial round of responses to David Platzer and Anne Allison’s essay, I think it is important that we are exposing a fake and dangerous normativity that underpins our profession. In Europe, as well as in the United States, choosing an academic trajectory is seen as the only legitimate career choice for anthropologists. Alternatives beyond this increasingly risky path are stigmatized as failure. People who decide to pursue such alternatives are considered a waste of time and resources by their academic mentors. They quickly lose their links with their intellectual and social community that anthropology offers, above and beyond its research outputs. Some of the suggestions made by forum participants are important, such as putting a cap on (though not abolishing!) graduate admissions, focusing on methods training, and preparing graduates to face the world of work. It might also be important to rethink the distinction between applied and traditional anthropology programs (less relevant to Europe, where such distinction barely exists) and to introduce career advising as obligatory, rather than an optional part of graduate supervision. More opportunities for professional and collegial socialization of those who do leave academia must be elaborated at conferences where the “affiliation” field makes colleagues who do not have one exceedingly uncomfortable. Solidarity between academic ranks and critical reflection on trends and turns are, likewise, a must.

Yet, beyond these reforms, Platzer and Allison’s essay takes a somewhat passive and conservative approach to transformation within the discipline that warrants concern. The assumption that all anthropology PhDs can land a full-time, permanent, well-paid job at a corporation or in the public or NGO sector is no more realistic than the assurance that they will secure a permanent academic position. Perhaps it is realistic for graduates of a few prestigious universities. Beyond this inner circle, though, the hierarchy within the discipline prevails. The belief that there are well-paid jobs with decent working conditions in wait for anthropologists evades discussion of the general systemic crisis of late capitalism that we are living out, in which automation, outsourcing, and the casualization of labor across sectors creates huge un(der)employment.

Platzer and Allison also shy away from discussing the class differences of new PhDs: some students, especially those coming from working-class and migrant backgrounds, finish their studies with huge debt, and they cannot rely on families or on their own reinvestment of loans into property or other ventures to repay it. The narrative of abundant employment outside of academia also disregards issues of time, space, and affective relations. When it comes to time, the penalty for people who leave academia after the PhD is significant: they are managed by those who left after undergraduate degrees, producing an inevitable sense of time loss. Space is an issue because of the concentration of jobs in key urban centers. Moving outside of geographic comfort zones is familiar fieldwork practice, but doing so permanently to secure employment is still not an option that most anthropologists consider or are prepared for, since moving comes with distance from or loss of family and friends.

The most unfortunate gap in the proposals put forward, however, is the elephant in the room: the fact that before we push new PhDs out on the market, we should acknowledge that the system is built on an inflated, unrealistic, and frankly insane dynamic of supply and demand. Universities are enrolling ever more undergraduates, so teaching is in high demand. Evidence-based policy and research are also in high demand, and universities are well equipped to provide this knowledge. Yet, on the management side, we see the reverse logic: to cut costs, administrators push more and more teaching positions off of the tenure track and into adjunct and visiting assistant professor positions. It is in this direction that anthropologists in secure positions need to rapidly and decisively intervene, offering more than symbolic solidarity and cosmetic solutions. Pushing this problem onto the private job market, while keeping such underfunded and fractional positions within our departments, is a cynical solution. There is a need to fight the new managerialism and the marketization of higher education on the very turf of the university. This requires political will to stand up against senior management, to advocate for scrapping student fees, to reclaim block grants for institutions, and to convert contingent positions into full-time permanent jobs. It also means that tenure-track academics have to resist the rat race that pushes performance beyond the possible and demands free labor that universities could and should allocate to those without jobs. As the recent strike in the United Kingdom has shown, it is still students who stand up for faculty while the opposite is rarely the case. Unless the crisis is to boomerang against us and divide us even further, tenured and tenure-track faculty need to stand up for their students and colleagues.

Last but not least, anthropologists are in a position to secure jobs not only outside academia, but also across the disciplinary spectrum. By emphasizing the relevance of their research to interdisciplinary dialogues, anthropologists can take up positions in departments from sociology and geography to law, management, and environmental science. Yet this branching out still does not address the systemic and structural crisis within academia. We need to push universities to rethink the role of the humanities and social sciences within, rather than just beyond, universities. Take the example of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, a socialist university for the poor and the site of my doctoral research. Instead of preserving rigid disciplinary boundaries, the academics who founded the university saw anthropology as one of the disciplines whose methodological toolkit needed to be integrated in each and every academic unit. Students and scholars in the arts and in the natural, medical, and business sciences can draw on the insights of anthropology to understand the long-term consequences of their actions and of the knowledge they produce. Such fundamental reform is difficult, but vital given the systemic crisis we are living out. Anthropology as a discipline remains well-placed to intervene in such a way and to secure its own and its graduates’ futures within the twenty-first-century university, rather than outsourcing the conditions of this crisis.