Precarity, Risk and Hypocrisy in the Modern University

Durham University, John Snow and South College hub, 2020

The institutional solidity and continuity which we associate with the ideal university is produced only through successful management of the enormous risks involved in the creation of new individual and collective knowledge. Yet the modern university has abdicated its responsibility for managing many of these risks, and prefers instead to offload them on to the shoulders of its own staff. A prerequisite for a healthy higher education sector is a rebalancing of this burden so that universities can face up to and be appreciated for what they truly are: structures for the management of the risk inherent in knowledge creation.

Universities are ubiquitous today as the home of advanced learning and study, but they are not inevitable. The inquisitive individual can find knowledge in many places, and experts can guide learners in a huge variety of possible institutional settings. These institutions would not attract many students if they did not award qualifications, however. Without trusted accreditation, extended and intensive learning would simply be too risky an endeavour for most people. 

Likewise, a range of institutions produce new knowledge for our society as a whole, including through publicly funded research. But only universities truly excel at producing fundamental knowledge which has no immediate economic value. By certifying individual learning, universities can develop teaching operations which support the production of collective knowledge which would be too risky for other sorts of organization to handle. The consequent prestige of this knowledge enhances the value of the accreditation on offer. This virtuous circle has carried universities to the top of the knowledge-creation hierarchy all over the world.

The university as an institutional model has achieved this dominance by managing the risks associated with knowledge creation, and has done this so successfully that we often forget just how inherently risky the business of universities is. We see organizations with vast accumulations of reputation and trust which do not advertise their own precarity, or the extraordinary interaction of counter-balancing risks which drives them forward. But some of the risks which modern universities face are more familiar to us, because we as a society have decided that universities must bear certain risks which we are collectively unwilling to manage ourselves.

Social Irresponsibility

The most fundamental of these risks is generated by our unwillingness to take the great gamble of investment in education as a public good. Authoritatively accredited learning continues to be seen as pretty safe bet by many (mostly) young people, but universities are almost entirely dependent on this relatively small pool of learners for whom a university degree is a feasible and sensible investment of time and money at an individual level. There are many other potential learners and many other possible modes of learning, but they are not associated with the same individual benefits as those of which most of today’s students can be reasonably confident. Society as a whole, on the other hand, might gain enormously from a higher level of education amongst its citizens, and from freeing these citizens to educate themselves further. But there is no guarantee that a better educated citizen body would actually produce a better society, since we don’t know in advance exactly what this better society would look like or exactly how we could educate ourselves for creating it and living in it. If we did, we would not baulk at the cost of achieving it. The ‘cost’ is meaningless; it is the risk that we fear. Without a guaranteed return on our investment, we shy away from the challenge of seeking the better society that we can only discover in the attempt to reach it. Universities can manage the ‘learner’ risk for individuals through accreditation, but society must live with its own risk as a collective student.

With access only to a restricted pool of learners, most of whom are making a substantial commitment to some kind of self-advancement, universities are all the more obliged to make themselves attractive to these students through their contribution to the knowledge of society as a whole. Fortunately, society is prepared to pay directly for some of this knowledge – but not too much, and only when the costs cannot practically be borne by universities’ individual learners. To ensure ‘value for money’, we have devised elaborate (and expensive) bureaucracies to fund only the most promising researchers and projects. But such is the riskiness of creating new knowledge in the service of an inherently unknowable future that some of the most promising avenues will lead nowhere, whilst some of the slightly less promising options would have led to gains which would easily justify the cost of pursuing more of the promising paths simultaneously. Parsimonious, highly selective, risk averse research funding is ultimately counter-productive. It also ensures that our funding models expose universities to the risks of knowledge creation a second time: not the inherent risk that a given path will not lead anywhere, but the manufactured risk that the access offered by a university to a perfectly promising path will not receive funding in a selection process which approaches the conditions of a lottery.

We have collectively opted out of the risks involved in genuine public education and rational research funding, and ultimately we only harm ourselves through these false economies. But these risks do not disappear: our universities must bear on our behalf what we will not bear ourselves. Should we therefore pity our university leaders? The very risk-management success of the institutional model of which they are the custodians has only encouraged the rest of us to burden it with further risk which would be better managed at a societal level. But our pity would be misplaced, because universities leaders do not even attempt to use their considerable risk-management structures to mitigate these risks: they simply pass them on to individual members of staff.

Risk Dumped

When its number comes up in the research funding lottery, a university employs staff on a temporary basis for the duration of this funding – whether to do or support the research itself or to cover the teaching and administrative work of staff now occupied with the research. So the university faces no risk that it will be left to pay the costs of the staff (who often themselves generated this success in the first place) when the funding ends; instead, the staff face an enormous risk of unemployment and of a redundancy which could be the end of a professional, specialist career in which an individual has already invested a great deal.

Once again, the recipient of the dumped risk cannot effectively manage risk which is ultimately exogenous to them. And this time, we have reached the end of the line: the hot potato can be passed no further, and someone higher up the chain has nabbed the oven gloves. Indeed, the heat has been positively intensified, because most permanent university jobs are tied in some way to the combination of teaching and research work which underpins the risk management strategy of the university as a whole. The temporary staff hired to reflect (not manage) fluctuations in teaching or research income are generally employed in one area or the other, making it difficult for them to move into the better protected ‘core’ of the university, and ensuring that they are directly exposed to the enormous learning and knowledge creation risks which cascade unbroken from the societal level directly to the individual.

The sheer scarcity of, and competition for, permanent positions means that our precarious member of staff is very likely to find themselves completely out in the cold following any given redundancy. Furthermore, this competition is heavily weighted against many of them. Unpaid work is a feature of careers in higher education at all levels, and those precarious staff with the resources of time and money to undertake large amounts of unpaid work (including during periods of unemployment) are hugely advantaged. Anyone who voices awkward truths or challenges authority runs the risk of being disadvantaged, and so our fixed-term member of staff may not feel able to report abuses and misconduct by their colleagues. A gap in employment is even more dangerous for anyone who needs a visa to remain in the country. Any ‘success’ will likely mean another fixed-term contract, and this rapid turnover of jobs is likely to mean constant movement between cities, regions and countries. Those with caring responsibilities and disabilities in particular may not be able to accept this.

The individual and sectoral harms which arise from this situation are obvious, and will be familiar to most readers of this blog. We are talking about extreme stress, workload and vulnerability to all sorts of workplace injustices, leading to serious issues with mental and physical wellbeing, not infrequently impacting severely on health. (Recent reports detailing these issues can be found here, here and here.) Even if our temporary member of staff can manage to take a relaxed attitude towards their future in a career which demands such dedication, the sector as a whole should not be relaxed about those who are forced from or lost to its professions as a consequence of precarity. These are the people without independent means, those without class-, race- and gender-based social privileges, those with disabilities and caring responsibilities. Precarious employment is so widespread in UK universities that an early-career phase of precarious employment is an almost universal experience (it may, of course, continue throughout a career). When the gateway to employment in the sector is indirectly sexist, racist and ableist, the health of the sector as a whole is severely compromised.

The structural crisis of precarity is rarely acknowledged by university leaders, beyond concerns about possible disruptions to the early career ’pipeline’. Its consequences are indeed too horrible for any self-respecting modern organization to contemplate, though behind closed doors they have been briefly recognized under the heading ‘attrition of talent’. Instead, precarity is usually presented as a purely individual matter. The anguish of affected individuals is turned against them and used to inflict yet further damage through the denial of the structural, systemic problems with which they are forced to contend. Simultaneously, the sheer prevalence of precarity serves as a smokescreen for the use of temporary forms of employment when there is no appreciable workforce planning risk involved. Disposable temporary staff will always be attractive to employers whenever they can get away with using them, and one of the key factors enabling universities to do so is the alibi provided by the genuine risks which they face in certain areas of their operation and the fiction that it is impossible to manage these risks.

Risk Managed

This fiction appears credible at the micro level: a particular post is either funded, or it is not. But a university is not made up of a series of discrete funded/unfunded binaries. It is a system with an overall level of workforce planning risk which very rarely falls below a certain level: additional permanent staff could be hired to cover this systemic and predictable ‘risk’ that additional work will receive funding. Smaller, specialized ‘systems’ within the workforce naturally have less stable levels of additional work per year, but the sheer quantity of fixed-term positions currently generated by larger, research-intensive universities (where temporary staff can be 50% of the workforce by headcount) suggests that most such sub-groups of staff are very likely to contain at least one fixed-term position in any given year. The workforce is further subdivided by arbitrary distinctions between ‘research’ and ’teaching’ staff, largely an artefact of funding models, but this is only an impediment to the understanding of the university workforce as a larger system, not necessarily to its actual functioning as such.

Of course, the fluctuating workload will sometimes demand temporary staff. But these staff need never be exploited through the dumping of workforce planning risk. The risk can also be managed on an individual level, through compensation. In a balanced employment market, temporary staff would normally demand higher wages than their permanent colleagues, but higher education staff are rarely in a position to do this. In any case, the better form of compensation would be paid career development opportunities in addition to the primary contract of employment, designed to reduce the risk of a redundancy becoming the end of a career. In order to reduce the cost of such risk-sharing compensation, employers could obviously reduce their dependence on temporary staff by covering predictable levels of workforce planning risk with permanent staff. Crucially, levels of temporary staffing can and must be brought below the level at which precarity begins to make the route by which most people must enter the higher education professions a deeply discriminatory one.

A risk sharing approach makes this possible. Some workers must bear some of the risk, and are compensated accordingly, whilst the employer also faces a risk that the anticipated level of additional funding will not materialize in any given year. But, unlike the risk of unemployment and career-ending redundancy faced by temporary staff, this risk is really very limited. In almost all areas of a university’s activity, the ‘spare capacity’ for which the employer might find themselves paying can and will be used productively. Staff will be doing or supporting additional research, improving teaching programmes, developing new training or improving the efficiency of systems and structures, or indeed briefly recuperating from otherwise unsustainably intense workloads. The ‘unfunded’ time for which the employer is paying is not an extra cost, but an extra investment in staff and their activities. Modern universities prefer to ruthlessly cut staff costs, expecting ever greater performance from ever decreasing resources, but this is merely the prevailing orthodoxy of a counterproductive management culture sustained by broken governance models.

The Cost of Failure

We all hope to live to see a day in which our universities are better managed and better governed. Not least because modern universities’ complex relationship with risk presents a real threat to the stability of individual institutions: an eagerness to offload pension risks often goes hand-in-hand with speculative ventures using capital borrowed on onerous terms (not to mention the recent willingness to take huge risks with student, staff and public health). But the risk which is dumped onto precarious staff is so central to the very being of the university that an institution need not improve its management in every area of its operations in order to better manage its workforce planning risk. By the same token, however, a university cannot comprehensively fail to manage risks associated with knowledge creation without damaging its essence as a university.

By passing the risk with which they have been burdened by society unmanaged and unmitigated directly to their workforce, university leaders feed the delusion that this dumping of societal risk onto institutions of learning is sustainable. They encourage the fiction that we can all enjoy the public benefits of higher education at largely private expense, and the fallacy of funding research as if we can unerringly pick our ‘winners’. If university leaders want more support from the societies which they serve, they must stop allowing themselves to be used as conduits of risk from the collectivity to the individual. Playground bullies ultimately gain nothing when they abuse others rather than standing up to their own tormentors.

But the damage done by this institutional failure runs deeper still. As Sarah O’Connor has recently written in the Financial Times, ‘university managers… need to see that part of their role as employers is to shoulder some risk and manage it as best they can, rather than pass it reflexively on to individuals’. But it is not only as employers that universities must manage risk. The management of risks associated with learning and knowledge creation is at the heart of the success of the university as an institutional model, and universities’ credibility as universities is at stake when they fail to perform this role.

This is the hidden hypocrisy of the modern university: an institution for the management of the risks inherent in the creation of new knowledge which refuses to manage some of these risks when it can get away with dumping them on the people who ultimately create this knowledge. It may get away with doing so for as long as society colludes in this handing-down of risk which is ultimately societal. But it does so at the cost of losing the respect of both this society and its own workforce. The university and knowledge creation have become almost inseparable, but they are not the same thing: the former is merely a vehicle for the latter, and a remarkably successful vehicle only on account of its ability to manage the risks involved. Indeed, there is no guarantee that any other vehicle would be as effective in the crucial but under-appreciated task of managing risk as the university has proved itself capable of being. To allow public institutions as important as our universities to degenerate through their own hypocrisy is one risk that we do not need to take.

This essay was first published on 22 January 2021 on the UCU Commons blog.

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