One of the main issues facing young academics is the increasing casualisation of the higher education workforce. But the emphasis that current education policy places on creating a "flexible workforce able to cope with shifting demands" is, like many other aspects of "new" Labour's programme, not new at all.
"Flexibility" became integral to employment and education policies in the 1930s. Young people, the lowest-paid, least unionised sector of the workforce, were an attractive source of labour for employers in the growing labour-intensive light manufacturing industries. Successive governments transferred young workers from depressed northern regions to unskilled factory work in southern England, preceded by government-funded "training", ostensibly to help youths learn monotonous manual labour processes, but in reality to acclimatise them to low wages and strict discipline. "Flexibility" was also integral to the ethos of the post-1944 secondary modern schools and Youth Employment Service, which taught "adaptability" to meet the demand of any sudden turnover to new materials or "revision of technique".
Vocational education taught children to accept unskilled manual labour and the work ethic, strategies that subsequently shaped Youth Training Schemes in the 1980s and 1990s. "Flexibility", often presented as tailoring work to individuals' needs, in reality signifies an acceptance that job insecurity, low pay and monotonous work are facts of life in the "modern" labour market.
What is new about current policy is the incorporation of higher education into the flexible workforce strategy. The Government is keen to focus the "widening participation" debate on access to a tiny number of high-status universities, and clearly the social elitism still endemic in many institutions needs to be eroded. Whether a Government that criticises comprehensive education and is headed by a man who does not support his local schools is strongly committed to doing so is, however, questionable.
The broader strategic aim is to fulfil employers' demands for a flexible, and increasingly casual, workforce.
Leeds University's establishment of a call centre that pays students the minimum wage is one of the latest initiatives that encourages students to accept, rather than challenge, labour market structures. The social cost of this is significant. Successive studies demonstrate that students from working-class backgrounds are most likely to seek such work while studying and to enter low-paid, non-unionised and/or casual employment after graduation.
Higher education is itself increasingly reliant on a casual workforce, including the hourly paid teaching of PhD students and the research of temporary postdoctoral staff, many of whom are not entitled to national wage-bargaining and have few employment rights. Depressingly, the rise in higher-education funding that will allegedly result from higher tuition fees relies on the expansion of such employment. This threatens academic job security and pay and will facilitate the division of research and teaching.
More optimistically, history also teaches that opposition to such "flexible" working has been (partially) successful. The campaign for comprehensive education challenged the ethos of vocational secondary education. High absenteeism within Youth Training Schemes, and strikes in UK call centres, have helped ameliorate the worst aspects of exploitation.
However, the struggle to stop casualisation endangering higher education can be won only if awareness grows that this is part of a trend affecting the wider workforce, and if it is recognised that when a Government calling itself "new" talks about "modernising" work, its rhetoric deserves close and critical scrutiny.
Selina Todd is a postdoctoral fellow a the Centre for Contemporary British History, University of London.