In their first year of teaching at the University, July 12 was the last day of the second semester for Maureen and Luke, with the end of classes and the handing over of the final essays and research reports of their students. Within a week, it was also the expected time to start some vacation, to visit relatives and to ease the pressure of their job on their private life.
To their surprise, the department manager, a former colleague student, busy on his career fast track, reminded them that he chose them to be part of the selection committees for masters students and, given that one colleague retired and two others quit their posts, there was no alternative but to take some extra work with them through their vacation. There were also some minor questions as to being available to respond to doubts students might have on the assessment criteria of exams in any subject. Holidays that year became reduced to a week and more recently lately to a weekend or three days, dedicated to replenishing energy and dealing with their exhaustion.
Now, it is more than ten years of a workload augmented almost irreversibly, job rhythms accelerated and urgency as the new normal. The issues here are work overload, its huge extent and how difficult the “management” of people’s lives has turned out to be. The expectation of technological innovation and the use of a learning platform (what is formally known as a learning management system or LMS) has turned a promise of flexibility into a nightmare. The drift of the platform university goes unchecked. This is especially true for teaching, training, lifelong learning, and even research.
To access classes online at anytime and from anywhere allowed the trend of acceleration and continuous dedication to one’s job to take over not just one’s time but the very process of taking decisions, and that means thinking about what one is doing and what one’s future might be.
How to make sense of all that? To answer this, three aspects are crucial: technological change, work practices, and management.
Innovation and technological change in higher education constitute the first driver of change. Its importance is related to the two other aspects. If new technology imposes new ways of working and relating to each other on the job, its impact is amplified by decisions, organizational culture and power relations. One clear feature is the emergence of the precariat in higher education organizations. The technological transformation underway is almost synonymous with the platform model.
The platform model is a two-sided institution with its own rules. One side is the users of the platform, either for a small fee or “free”, or not quite free. There is always a cost in terms of giving up privacy and information. On the other side of the platform, we find the other market of customers, namely the ones that are interested in either advertisement, or information of those on the former side of the platform. On this side, we can also add the suppliers of companies that work for the platform. The latter are often moving back and forth into the organization that supports the platform. Between the two sides, there is the core organization that takes care of the business model. And it does not matter that much if the higher education organization is public or private (corporation or foundation) because the value and the worldview behind both is one of market capitalism.
Platform capitalism is dedicated to production and wealth transfer from users, customers and suppliers to the core organization and a limited number of interested parties or corporations buying big data about current or potential customers or users. This is happening with the data of students and staff. The users cannot see much outside of their frame and what data is collected and how deep and how long. They are manipulated. On the other side, university management and corporations can access or give access to data of users; this big data has market value.
Now the second point is the emergence of new work practices, values and ways of relating to one another in universities much more structure around a platform, for teaching, controlling work and doing research. This has profound consequences not only on the individual for organizing his or her work but also for the collective organization of work, which in turn influences individual work settings. The latter goes almost unnoticed because people are much more isolated than in the past and this means they see just what the platform permits. This is also mediated by social media that can mitigate or amplify the flow of information and the direction of reactions.
One important dimension to platform work is suffering and the difficulty in shaping one’s life beyond the short term and tactics. This is related to the sharp increase in workload and working time taken home, the blurring of the frontiers between work and private life and acceleration of the time dedicated to micro-tasking from reserving a flight to organizing a conference or training session.
The third aspect is probably at the centre of the platform university with a management that amplifies technological impacts and job content and forms. If the technological dimension is unprecedented by the sheer transformation of learning technologies and practices, the issue of university management is not new. In the early 1900s, a similar change in American universities occurred and is best described by a famous institutional economist, Thorstein Veblen, wrote a famous and controversial book, Higher Learning in America, with the enlightening subtitle: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (published in 1918).
What we name today marketization, new public management and business models correspond to what Veblen referred to as the businessmen in academic dress, promoting, in universities, “unsavoury techniques of salesmanship”. As Veblen put it: “They are useful for purposes of competitive gain to the businessman, not for serviceability to the community at large, and their value to their possessor lies in the differential advantage which they give to one seller as against another.”
Ironically and purposefully, in linking Veblen to current issues in universities, we can consider the definition of the university as “a place where scholars seek truth, pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake – irrespective of the consequences, implications and utility of the endeavour”. In his essay The idea of the university, Simon Leys referred to a letter of Gustave Flaubert to his dear friend Ivan Turgenev that summarize a whole part of the current problem in universities: “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” These are indeed the two poles of our predicament: on one side, the need for an ‘ivory tower’, and on the other side, the threat of the ‘tide of shit’.
Marc Jacquinet is a PhD in Economics, University of Lisbon. His main areas of scholarship and research lie in the economics of technological innovation and organizational behaviour, the study of work culture, digital economy, digital work, sustainability, critical management studies and the study of public policies.