Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake is a well-documented and systematic analysis of what we might call American-style neoliberalism, which applies itself more through market pressure and managerial ideology than through direct state regulation (as in many European cases). The book focuses on what he terms the “devolutionary cycle” of privatization of U.S. public universities. While these universities have remained legally public, Newfield defines privatization not in terms of formal legal status or ownership but in terms of practical “control”: who wields influence, sets expectations and creates incentives. One of the great conceptual strengths of the book is its demonstration that privatization as process can be at once partial and paradigmatic, a totalizing system that may nevertheless benefit from leaving occasional gaps that can serve it as alibis. As he observes, ”the privatization of public universities is a complicated pastiche of mixed modes, which is why so many people can plausibly deny that it is happening” (28). Nevertheless, as he discovers firsthand, the decline of public support and financing has become an unquestionable fact (rather than a contestable policy choice) for many senior administrators. “State money isn’t coming back,” Newfield gets told bluntly by an assistant to the University of California’s chair of the board (188).
I have my doubts about whether precarity is always a good category for academic labor organizing. But from within the universe of European precarity discourse, I especially admire Mariya Ivancheva’s recent summary of the situation of early career researchers in her 2015 paper “The Age of Precarity and the New Challenges to the Academic Profession“. First she comments on the poverty wages and immense structural sexism that characterizes the post-PhD situation:
… a whole generation of junior academics is exposed to an ever growing casualization of labor. In Ireland alone, as a study of the collective Third Level Workplace Watch shows, a growing number of casual academics win on average 10 000 € annual income for an average of eight and a half years after finishing their PhD. In 63% of the cases this income is generated by hourly paid work, done in 62% of the cases by women. In Ireland again, a recent study by the Higher Academic Authority has shown that men still get 70% of all permanent academic positions in all seven universities in the country. The situation is similar in other countries where despite the fact that women make for the majority of completed PhD dissertations, the ratio of employment is still at their detriment. Women are particularly exposed to vulnerability with less access to permanent positions, and more emotional labor and care-giving functions both in and out of the academy. While those who have children feel losing the academic game because of the domestic burden of care in ever decreasing welfare conditions, those who do not have children feel deprived of private life due to growing imperative to do replacement teaching and administrative work.
The actual data (from 2011) is quite revealing as well: women are 57.6% of French public university undergraduates and Master’s students, 48% of doctoral students, 42.4% of junior faculty (maîtres.ses de conférences), only 22.5% of senior faculty (professeur.es des universités), and only 14.8% of university presidents. (French University presidents are elected from among the permanent faculty, so it makes more sense to put them on this scale than you might think.)