Post by Mary Bosworth, Director of Border Criminologies. Mary is on Twitter @MFBosworth.
Border Criminologies will be going silent over the next few weeks, on the blog, on Twitter and on Facebook, in solidarity with its UK-members who are facing industrial action in a bid to safeguard what remains of their pension. Fourteen days of strike, called by the academic union, UCU, are staggered over the next month, and start tomorrow, on Thursday February 22. Overall, 88% of UCU members who voted backed strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike. We will run posts as normal on non-strike days.
Academics are notoriously poor at striking. Everyone feels bad about letting students down. What do you do on non-teaching days? Why would you not read a book or write an article? Who is going to be affected by that? Are our working conditions that bad?
In our own ambivalence to collective action, I think a number of issues arise. First of all, and however perversely, we see a devaluing of our own labour. Who, if not ourselves, will speak on our behalf?
Secondly, and of relevance to people beyond the academy too, is perhaps a level of discomfort, or maybe simply a lack of familiarity, with collective action. While some strike action remains common in some parts of the world, in most neo-liberal states like Britain, it has fallen out of practice.
More prosaically, there are other fears, about pay docking (who can afford to lose half a month’s pay?), and doubts over effectiveness. Pensions everywhere have been hollowed out. In Britain academic ones were significantly weakened a few years ago, when the defined benefit scheme was closed to new entrants and capped for those of us already in posts.
Questions over the worth of academic work raise others that are equally important, about its purpose and impact. In the UK, in particular, we are being exhorted to pursue measurable impact to justify our existence. Criminologists are not so bad at such matters. Many of our friends in the humanities face an uphill battle.
In thinking about such matters, it is worth recalling that many of the earliest criminological accounts of migration control, by authors like Dario Melossi and Alessandro De Giorgi emphasized issues of labour in their analysis of causes and consequences of punitive approaches to foreigners. Economic structures, they argued, lay at the heart of public policy. While critical scholars these days tend to favour other concepts like sovereignty, governance and identity, industrial disputes remind us of the foundational impact of economics both in forging solidarity and in driving us apart.
Academics occupy a privileged position within any economic structure. Yet, the sector includes considerable inequalities. As the numbers of people working on temporary contracts grows, the possibility of collective action diminishes. Simply put, many of us do not have the same jobs as our colleagues any more. How has this precarity and retrenchment negatively impact women and ethnic minorities in particular? What, then, may unite us?
So, too, while the numbers in tertiary education in many countries has expanded over the last 20 years or so, the growing use of fees and the increase of their cost, is saddling many young people with debts they can never hope to pay off. Again, this practice drives a wedge between us by turning those who wish to learn into customers and those who teach into their service providers.
Exceptions remain. University is still free in many countries. Not all places rely on poorly-paid precarious teaching staff. While this particular industrial action in Britain relates to pensions, in coming together across the multiple divisions, it offers an opportunity to reflect on and reaffirm our shared goals and aspirations. Academic work is not simply a labour of love, but it is often that too. Its impact may not always be easy to measure; not all work is or indeed should or can be policy relevant. But a commitment to critical thinking, democratic debate and analysis is surely worth protecting. For all these reasons, Border Criminologies stands in solidarity with British academics. See you next week!
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Bosworth, M. (2017) Academic Work: What Is It Worth And What It Is For?. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/02/ (Accessed [date]).