Prevalence of Differential Wage
Corporations are frequently under fire for introducing or adhering to a differential wage that splits the workforce. The famous example is Henry Ford’s “$5 a day”, but if a worker happened to be a minority, the high wage did not apply. Universities are well-know for fragmenting their teaching workforce by relying on graduate students and adjunct faculty to carry the heavy load of teaching. The dependence on graduate students fits in nicely with the Babbage principle of never paying more for skill or force needed to do the job. Diverting precious time from a high-wage, productive researcher into the classroom is not cost effective.
Often at universities there is a wage differential, but since we are gentlemen and gentlewomen, it is not discussed. There are faculty, of various ranks and experience, some who carry extra administrative duties, and some who don’t. There are lecturers and instructors. There are grad students who have a TA or RA stipend. There are staff, again, various ranks and years in service. Largely, universities are not unionized, but sometimes faculty are, and sometimes staff are. Universities have different views of equipment, such as computers, and what fund pays the bills. All faculty members are not created equal, and some seem to attract many more resources than others.
The Entrepreneurial Spirit
In corporations, entrepreneurship is code for having workers fend for themselves. For instance, the reliance on temporary or contract workers is a suitable illustration of the entrepreneurial workforce. Some minor faculty members without a tenured appointment need to cover not only their own salary, but that of their staff, are classic entrepreneurs. The university only acts as their banker, as a place where the checks can be routed, tax-free. But in reality, it is the employee who is covering the entire cost of his wages, his health insurance and other benefits.
The Profit-Driven Enterprise
Corporations have customers. Universities have students, who are regarded by administrators as consumers, instead of willing vessels to be filled with knowledge. The consumer model changes the dynamic in the classroom. One professor told me that it used to be that students were afraid of not doing the work and disappointing the professor, and perhaps, even failing the class. Today, this professor is afraid not to pass his student-consumers, regardless of knowledge attained or material mastered. Another feature that the university shares with its corporate counterpart is the encouragement of its student-consumers to take on debt in order to buy their product.
Another earmark of the corporation is the adoption of Taylorism, that is, the insistence of the separation of the “brain from the hand.”1 At first blush, it seemed that Taylor’s principles would not find a home in an academic environment. With e-learning, management can easily take what is “under the cap of the worker into the hands of management.”2 And often, the “taking” is done with the worker’s full knowledge and cooperation.
One e-learning enterprise approached a number of faculty with the idea that they would develop on-line courses based on their teaching material. In step with Taylor’s First Principle, faculty, flattered, turn over their material. The worker-knowledge that management used to have to deliberately observe, collect, and root out of workers is freely given by academics. Taylor’s Second Principle is that all “brain work should be removed from the shop and centered in the planning or laying out department…”3 This is also quick work, with the material safely in the hands of e-learning development team. Taylor’s Third Principle has to do with the monopoly of management knowledge and management’s control over each step of the labor process. Once the course materials have been developed into an interactive web-based learning tool, management plans when the classes are. Management hires instructors, who are not the faculty members who developed the material. Faculty may make recommendations of who should teach the courses based on his material, but the decision to hire freelance instructors is with the e-learning enterprise. What used to be the faculty’s skill and trade—teaching—has been effectively debased, and to a degree, outsourced. The web courses are delivered on the student’s own time, on the student’s schedule, but there are occasional allowances made for groups to log on at the same time and discuss the material. While the student seems to make some choices, the e-learning organization is in control of the entire learning process.
The university as an entity as at a crossroads. The introduction and improvement of the online technology brings with it fundamental questions. What is learning? What is education? What is the role of the university? What is the role of faculty? If a student can cruise through 120 credits online, is the residential institution a necessity? Will the big schools become more like the for-profits? Many colleges have the ability to offer or accept some online credits. The wall, for undergraduate education, has been breached.
The implications for graduate education is heavier, as the mentoring relationship between faculty and student serves as some kind of quality control. Will universities be graduating Ph.D. candidates who have never had a face-to-face encounter with their professor? Will new professors be necessary if the old guard has already prepared canned presentations of the sum of human knowledge? Will knowledge acquisition slow down?
These are very serious questions, and the trouble is that they can be dealt with in a frivolous manner, or in an attempt to maximize the bottom line, that can cause harm to us all.
Update All those who are incensed that Agnes’s lament did not include concrete solutions are welcome to submit guest posts of their own outlining their own ideas of How To Fix Higher Education. firstname.lastname@example.org
3Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital. Monthly Review Press, 1998.