Why Academics Have Far Less Bargaining Power Today than Before COVID-19

COVID-19 ushered in a revolution of epic proportions in higher education. In one masterful stroke, universities have orchestrated a seismic shift so ground-breaking that the academic employment relationship as we know it—I mean, as we knew it—will never be the same again. I say “masterful” because we have been somehow made to be complicit in our own demise.

In days gone, academia was a relatively “good gig” because our expertise was what economists call “inimitable.” Anyone can fry a burger at McDonalds, but not anyone—in fact, hardly anyone—can deliver a lecture on combinatorial mathematics or write an academic paper on the theoretical physics underlying black holes. Our “bargaining power” as employees rested on the fact that we could both teach and research in complex fields. If universities wanted to excel on these two fronts, they needed to pay dearly for that expertise.

Not anymore.

One of those two work tasks has been almost fully divorced from the academic as a result of COVID-19.

Over the last couple years, we academics have been busy recording our lectures to accommodate the demands for a “flipped” or “hybrid” classroom. Many academics were under the impression that this was to be temporary measure in light of COVID-19. Let’s not be naïve. Even when we all return to campus with no restrictions in place, our lectures will still be delivered online, and face-to-face instruction will come in the form of tutorials or seminars.

Think about what this does to our “bargaining power” as academics? We can no longer withdraw our labor when it comes to teaching. We used to be able to go on strike by not showing up to lecture our students. We used to be able to leave our university (or threaten to leave it) for another if certain demands were not met. These threats have evaporated into nothing today.

The only real bargaining power we have left in the classroom is that we can run tutorials and grade or mark assessments. However, sessional, or adjunct, professors can do that, too. So can PhD students. Why would a university want to pay a full-time academic to do exactly the same job of a sessional academic who works for 1/5th the cost?

“Why would a university want to pay a full-time academic to do exactly the same job of a sessional academic who works for 1/5th the cost?”

Let’s face it. We have brought about our own demise as lecturers. You can blame universities. You can blame COVID-19. You can blame public health officials. But we did this to ourselves, and it can’t be undone.

So what does this mean for us and our future as academics? It means that our “bargaining power,” our job security, now lies in our research success. The execution of research cannot be readily outsourced, recorded, or simulated. If you can produce high quality research, your “bargaining power” will remain intact. But you need to recognize this seismic shift in the balance of power between universities and academics and accept that we no longer hold power where we once did.

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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