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The Gig Academy, by Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott

Written by: Mark Erickson
Published on: 1 Oct 2020

A book on casualisation and marketisation in the higher education sector is certainly timely, although these issues have been with us for decades. Yet the sector is now finally waking up to the consequences for universities of far-reaching decisions made a number of years ago, decisions that, according to the authors of this book, turned US universities into “gig academies”.

The Gig Academy takes a detailed look at the labour force in US universities and colleges, where the tension between free-market logic and a residual public-good regime that is more collectivist and egalitarian in its aims has increased steadily in the past three decades. Deploying the “gig” metaphor to bring together a range of recent trends, the authors characterise a gig academy as one where: a significant number of staff are outsourced and employed as independent operators (here mainly adjunct teaching staff); “scientific management” is deployed to unbundle academic roles and produce a workforce where roles are tightly defined and prescribed; senior managers control and determine the supply of labour, thus shifting risk to the workforce; technology is deployed extensively to deliver product and organise labour; and workers lower in the hierarchy face considerable and persistent discrimination.

The book has a narrow focus, considering only the US (not even North America as a whole). This is, perhaps, understandable given the institutional locations of the authors, but ignoring the wealth of critical material across anglophone academic communities is regrettable, particularly as one of the few weapons that academics can use against marketisation and the imposition of “academic capitalism” is our research and scholarship. Recent work by Stefan Collini, Liz Morrish, Thomas Docherty and Stephen Ball, to name but a few, has a considerable amount to offer in understanding academic capitalism and recent changes in higher education in the UK and further afield. Indeed, an international analysis of structural changes within universities is sorely needed. Despite this, the conclusion that The Gig Academy reaches – that we need much more democratic control in our universities – is certainly applicable to the UK context.

Sociologist Max Weber delivered his famous lecture “Science as a Vocation” to an audience of scholars in Munich in 1917. This is best remembered now as a crucial articulation of “value-neutrality” as a principle of social research, but it also contains some important observations about the state of universities in Germany and the US. Weber noted that American universities had already become “state capitalist enterprises” where “we encounter the same condition that is found wherever capitalist enterprise comes into
 his [sic]
 means of
 production’.’’ The US way of organising higher education came to the UK with remarkable rapidity in the 20th century, embedding a neoliberal system of governance and management. Whether the neoliberal trends will change following the Covid-19 pandemic remains to be seen, although the impending financial crises for which many institutions are bracing themselves suggest that things are only going to get worse. Reading The Gig Academy will be good preparation for the changes we will face, indeed are already facing, in UK universities.

Mark Erickson is reader in sociology and director of postgraduate studies at the University of Brighton.