Precarity and Neoliberalism, Resistance and Solidarity

The role of the university as a place of education and research, as an employer, and as an important institution in the social landscape has changed dramatically in the past decade. As PhD students from various European and North American academic backgrounds, we are keenly aware of these developments and have been involved with or engaged against them – often both at the same time. One of the most pressing issues from our perspective concerns changing labour relations and the situation of the workforce in universities, especially the collapse of working conditions for many academic and non-academic staff and the lack of effective ways of addressing this development.

Professors, who once enjoyed excellent working conditions in Europe and North America, are increasingly subjected to stricter, stranger, and more noxious standards and regulations. They are pressured into constant external grant applications, and are threatened with severe sanctions if the administration considers the results of their activities inadequate. The case of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London who was found dead in September 2014 shortly after a distressing email exchange about funding, is one tragic example (Parr 2014).

Academics and their institutions are increasingly being judged according to various forms of ranking, both state-sponsored (such as the Research Excellence Framework in the UK) and international ones such as the Shanghai ranking and the Times Higher Education ranking of global reputation.[1] These rankings, as Cambridge historian Stefan Collini argues, do not actually reflect the excellence of research, or the quality of the university (Collini 2013). And yet they matter tremendously to university administrators, students, and state officials (Floch 2015). Recent months have seen an outpouring of articles from UK-based tenure-track academics in the humanities criticizing the ‘new dirigisme’ of the modern university, many of them inspired by Stefan Collini’s 2012 book ‘What Are Universities For?’

Academic Working Conditions Under Strain

Of course, we must not forget that professors are far from being the only academic workers at a university. There are throngs of other individuals involved in the production of knowledge. These include temporary teaching staff, ‘research assistants’, or graduate students who often combine their own thesis-related work with teaching and with non-thesis related research. It has lately become popular to claim that some of these schemes provide valuable or even necessary experience for graduate students, allowing them to be more competitive in the clogged-up academic labour market (Grove 2014).

However, such valuable experience can come with unpleasant strings attached, such as less than adequate working conditions: these contracts are typically temporary, with irregular hours, and the workers are frequently underpaid. In the last months this has led to teaching assistant strikes and walk-outs at three major Canadian universities: the University of Toronto, York University, and McGill University (Bryson 2004; Chiose 2015; Sadikov 2015). Most recently, our own institution, the European University Institute (EUI) has even created teaching positions that are simply not paid. Instead, they have been branded and sold as opportunities for ‘clinical training’ that do not therefore require remuneration.[2] These moves, by which academic employers attempt to represent exploitative labour relations as ‘win-win’ situations, as ‘valuable experiences’ or even ‘fantastic opportunities’, should be exposed for what they really are and  ought to be resisted.

Similarly, temporary teaching staff are frequently employed in dire conditions, a trend one can observe in such diverse contexts as the United States (Krause, Nolan, Palm & Ross, 2008), Poland (Chodzież 2015, Modzelewski 2015) and even the ‘social-democratic paradises’ of Scandinavia (Sved 2014). High competition, low pay, few to no benefits, and very unstable contracts have become the rule leading to wide-spread precarity. In Norway, for example, as much as 20% of all university and college employees are hired on temporary contracts. Such harsh conditions make it particularly difficult for members of historically disadvantaged groups, such as women, people from lower social classes, and those with a migrant background to succeed, as they are the ones most affected by the low pay and lack of benefits. This exclusionary effect is further compounded by the more specific discriminations many academic workers from these groups experience at their workplace (Bryson 2004: 50-51). The risk and often the result is a university that is not more but less socially and intellectually diverse.

The Neglected Workers: Attacks on Non-Academic Staff

And yet, to only focus on academic workers and their labour conditions would be a mistake. Indeed, we must not forget that an often neglected but huge part of the university-employed labour force consists of non-academic staff. As an institution, the university does not simply produce knowledge – it also consumes a huge amount of services. These run from vast quantities of administrative work to security, cleaning and catering.

The workers who perform these tasks are, to a significant extent, the life-blood of the university. However, their important contribution often remains unnoticed even when their working conditions, and therefore their livelihoods, are being attacked, as has regularly happened in recent years. What is true for young academics hold here as well: those who are overwhelmingly affected by these degrading labour conditions come from historically underprivileged backgrounds. They are often women, migrants or both and do not usually have ready access to institutionalized power or the media to fight back (McDowell 2013).

In some ways these changes did not remain unchallenged. In late 2011, in Montréal, members of the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association went on strike for almost four months. At stake were the usual suspects of labour negotiations: wages and benefits. The contract proposed by the administration included wage cuts in real terms, a negative (and, from the workers’ point of view, fairly dangerous) change in the pension scheme, as well as reductions in other benefits that are usually part of similar contracts in other Canadian higher education institutions. The administration claimed that it needed to make these changes because of the University’s increasing debt and consequent need to cut costs. The workers, in contrast, highlighted the mismanagement of funds and a huge disparity in wages between an ever-increasing number of high-level managers and the rest of the administrative staff (Arsem-O’Malley 2011a).

Across the Atlantic in 2013, students and staff at the University of Sussex occupied a medical school lecture theatre, protesting against the university’s continued privatisation of services that threatened working conditions of staff including porters, caterers and security workers (Elsisi 2013). In 2014, at the EUI in Florence, it came to the attention of several researchers that there was a new call for tenders, putting the porters’ existing contracts at risk. Given what it considered as budget constraints, the administration of the EUI saw a reduction of the costs of the porters’ services as a best-case scenario, but formally only asked for costs not to be increased. The initial result of this call for tenders led to a proposed contract which would require the workers to accept severe salary cuts (of the order of about 10-15% of their salaries), as well as equally severe benefit reductions.

The McGill strike ended in December 2011, with a hard-won victory for the union. In this process, the workers faced not only the usual consequences of a long-lasting strike, but also repeated court injunctions curtailing their right to free speech, as well as their ability to organise picket lines and to make their struggle visible (Arsem-O’Malley 2011b; Gass 2011). Regrettably, and despite the involvement of students and academic staff in solidarity with the workers, the struggles at the University of Sussex and at the EUI ended without allowing the workers to secure any long-lasting gains. Nevertheless, there is a bright side to this: in all three cases, genuine solidarity between students and staff emerged and was put into action, creating new possibilities for resistance.

Unfortunately, the attacks on non-academic labour as well as their social and intellectual consequences have rarely been addressed by the tenured professors who usually focus on recent developments in the academic organization of universities. All the groups that give substance to a university, that is to say students as well as academic and non-academic workers share the same workplace, collectively face more precarious working conditions, and are more generally part of the same society, experiencing and resisting these very developments. It is therefore our view that a broad alliance between all these groups would make us stronger. Indeed, while the combined pressure of these groups has already achieved some smaller effects, in the future we need a stronger, more conscious alliance between tenured professors, junior academic staff and non-academic staff, and students who in turn need to be allied with other groups outside of the university facing similar problems in their workplaces and social existence.

Ways of Protest

The recent university protests in Amsterdam, London, Toronto, and Montréal, to name but a few, are far from unique. To better situate this wave of protest in a broader context, it is helpful to look both backwards and forwards and beyond the ‘West.’ Here we can only do this in a very limited way, focusing on a surprising parallel with student activism in mid-20th century communist People’s Republic of Poland. In 1956 on the wave of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the promise of de-Stalinization the activist Polish communist youth, and especially students, unleashed a critique of the Polish United Workers’ Party and what they perceived as the deteriorating situation of higher education.

Engaged Marxist newspapers for young academics and students such as the Warsaw-based Po Prostu (‘Frankly’) and political discussion clubs at the University of Warsaw became important sites for creating and spreading the revisionist Marxist discourse that questioned the official Party line (Modzelewski 2013, 100-103). This revisionist and critical discourse of the students exposed the malfunctioning system of higher education by, for instance, addressing corruption. Far from limiting their critique to their closest social environment and interest, the students and young intellectuals were also critical of the Party’s proclivity to focus on quantity over quality both on the shop floor of the factories and in the universities. As a result of Po Prostu’s uncompromising tone and the increasingly anti-revisionist orientation of the Party, the weekly was shut down in 1957 which was followed by a students’ protest.

It was precisely within the university as an enclave of somewhat autonomous and yet socially engaged critical thought that the student rebellion emerged and eventually made its major public appearance during the famous March Protest in 1968 in Warsaw. The founders of various discussion clubs and leaders of the March protest in 1968 – Jacek Kuroń, Karol Modzelewski and Adam Michnik – later became key activists of Solidarność, a first autonomous workers’ union founded in 1980, which spearheaded change in the ‘Eastern Bloc’ and became the biggest European workers’ movement in the twentieth century. Other members such as Irena Grudzińska-Gross and Barbara Toruńczyk became famous intellectuals in Poland and beyond.

The remarkable example of the Polish post-1956 Marxist students turning against the repressive Communist Party and defending an alternative vision of critical and engaged academic work allows us to trace a history of ideas and student activism over time and beyond the limits of ‘the West.’ As Jo Guldi and David Armitage suggest, such a comparative view also demonstrates that the practices and views informing contemporary protest can and should be linked with other traditions of contestation (Guldi and Armitage 2014: 34). Moreover, the provided example proves that the university’s classroom became one of the sites within which a radically critical thought and conversation could emerge. It was a conversation, with the social bonds of solidarity that it created, that did not limit itself to the walls of the university and eventually turned into a contributing force to a social movement that brought about a substantial social change.

A broader contextualization is not only of intellectual value but can contribute to strengthening the political force of these movements, underlining their resonance and significance beyond the local contexts from which they emerge. Without romanticising past struggles and essentializing cultural differences, thinking along the lines of the examples from the past and beyond the ‘West’ continues to be a helpful framework that might prevent the automatic reproduction of a self-absorbed perspective of actors from the ‘West.’ As recent discussion continues to show the ‘Western-European left’ is far from being free from this self-absorption, often marginalizing perspectives, for instance such as those from the East, that are already marginalized.

Neoliberalism and State-led Privatisation

The responsibility of national governments for ‘marketisation’ and the drive for privatisation in higher education is sometimes underestimated, both within and outside academia. Reforms aimed at privatisation are very often the result of government intervention in the management of universities, and have therefore been imposed from the top down (Gray 2010). Since this has been done by governments of both the centre-right and the centre-left, it has led some to conclude that the word ‘neoliberalism’ is not an appropriate term to describe these developments.

However, this rests on the common misunderstanding that neoliberalism is no different from classical liberalism in that it favours a small state. Had this actually been the case there would have been no use for the prefix ‘neo’ neither for contemporary critics nor for the founding fathers of this doctrine in the 1930s. However, a variety of recent studies undertaken in the wake of the recent translation and publication of Michel Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics from 1979 (Foucault 2010 [1978-79]) have affirmed that both in doctrine and in practice neoliberalism favours a strong state capable of carrying out a program imposing the logic of the market in all spheres of society. It is precisely this political logis that we are witnessing at the university today. Therefore understanding and calling it by its rightful name is one step on the way to resisting it and working through it in a quest for something better.

Resistance to the neoliberalisation of the university comes from both a diverse alliance of the radical-left, who draw on theories of financialisation and indeed neoliberalism itself to explain our current economic situation, and from more conservative scholars who see themselves as the protectors of ancient academic tradition.[3] In critiques inspired by Collini, such as Marina Warner’s recent essay ‘Learning my lesson’ (Warner 2015), there is more than a hint of nostalgia for a past in which professors in the humanities had better working conditions and enjoyed a higher social standing. Such nostalgia, however, should not cloud our theoretical and historical perspective.

Roughly speaking, one can distinguish three different approaches to the contemporary study of neoliberalism. The first is what we may call the nostalgic or even Keynesian approach. Its proponents put the blame for the evils of neoliberalism on right-wing politicians, and an alleged ‘deregulatory project’ that they are supposed to be advocating and successfully enacting. The second approach is Marxist in nature, and famously expounded by David Harvey. According to this view, neoliberalisation is seen as little more than an episode in an ongoing class struggle, and it is always systemic problems of capitalism that are to blame for any perceived evil (Harvey 2007). The third perspective we may call Foucauldian or biopolitical. Instead of focusing on party politics or the systemic features of capitalism, it builds on the concept of ‘governmentality’. Like the Marxist approach, the biopolitical perspective sees little use in a nostalgic or Keynesian view as it recognises that the problem cannot simply be reduced to the latest developments in the field of academic economics and its influence on the policies of whatever party happens to be in power. Unlike Marxists, however, proponents of the biopolitical approach have also acknowledged that the state plays a particular and specific role in the process of neoliberalisation, which does not amount to a bourgeois return to the policies of laissez-faire (Bröckling, Krassmann & Lemke 2010).

The somewhat sentimental critiques by Collini and Warner can also be taken to point to a more Foucauldian approach in their attempts to problematize the changing view of knowledge and those who produce it in current ‘Western societies’. Wendy Brown has remarked that Foucault’s notion of governmentality highlights ‘the critical role of mentality in governing as opposed to the notion that power and ideas are separate phenomena’. It thereby allows us to theorize ‘the state formation of subjects rather than state control of subjects’ (Brown, 2005: 142), and points to a neoliberal political rationality, itself based on a ‘regime of truth’. While being in the middle of the business of producing knowledge, or truth, academics and their positions are under serious threat from the neoliberal conception of markets as information processors and producers of truth. From this logic it follows that academics have a new role in neoliberal society: they do not produce truth themselves, they participate and compete in a ‘marketplace of ideas’, where the truth eventually emerges.

Paradoxically, this is radical change and even those who want to seriously challenge the structures of ‘the postwar settlement’ as it is manifested in the university system see academic traditions of independent enquiry as vital for a new and better society. Despite possible continuities the left has changed since 1968. While still a transcendent political project, neoliberalisation demands a new generation of activists, acutely aware that there are aspects of the past worth fighting for and building upon for a better future. 

Towards a New Future

As young scholars, we are part of the university’s future. It seems evident to us that we should, following Collini, try to find the answer to the question: ‘what are universities for?’ But in so doing, we must not forget to ask an even bolder question: ‘what should universities be?’

Further alliances between students and workers must also be fostered and maintained. One of the strengths of the sequence of struggles, in the academic year 2011-2012 at McGill University, was precisely that it brought together under the flags of various kinds of radical demands students, non-academic workers, precarious academic workers, and to a lesser (though significant) extent, professors. There was an understanding of the commonality of the struggle against a new managerial system and a market-based approach to the university, and its expression took the form of mutual solidarity.

Practically, it meant for example that many students came to picket and demonstrate with the striking workers, and made sure their voices could be heard even in the face of repeated court injunctions that curtailed the workers’ right to protest. Strategies such as this one were devised through discussions occurring at different levels at different points in time. This meant not only that workers discussed among themselves in the context of their general assemblies and union meetings or that students had relevant conversations in the context of their own assemblies, but most importantly, it meant that there were significant and sustained discussions that cut across professional lines and allowed students and workers to build together a stronger movement and a more coherent strategy. In turn, the workers supported the student struggle against tuition increases in the province of Québec, which eventually brought about 250.000 people to the streets of Montréal in May 2012, numbers achieved before only during the demonstrations against the war in Iraq (Arsem-O’Malley 2011c; Bourgault-Côté 2012).

There is no ‘going back’ to a perceived golden age or ivory tower, but it is beyond doubt that there are aspects both of the academic tradition and of the post-war ideal of affordable or free higher education that are worth defending. As institutions charged with the important task of producing new knowledge, universities should not be mimicking already outdated forms of corporate organisation, but rather should be leading the way towards something better. In so doing, the university should resist neoliberal attempts to appropriate the idea of the social relevance of science and knowledge production of which it often gives a reductive, economistic account.  A possible alliance between nostalgic professors with radical potential and a reformed activist left bodes well for the future.

These spaces and practices of solidarity, which have precursors in a variety of historical moments such as the alliance between student activists and workers in the context of the Polish opposition and 1968 Paris, have most recently been explored further through the occupation of the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam, and the several occupations at universities in London. Through these various loci of struggle, we see the fledgling possibility of constructing a new university that embraces occupational, social and economic diversity, and where workers and students are able to co-determine the directions to be taken by the institution as a whole. It is perhaps with the help of these experiments and the experiences they procured that we may therefore see the future of the universities and get a glimpse of not only what they should be, but also find the way to how we can get to that point.


This article is a significant extension on a contribution the authors wrote for We thank the editors for allowing us to make use of it.