A captive workforce? A short reflection on the reality of academic work in Aotearoa-NZ

 Mike Grimshaw, Sociology & Anthropology

One of the more important assets any worker can have in the current workplace is mobility.

That is, are they able to relocate to where the jobs are? This can be a relocation to another workplace in the same city, relocation to a different city or relocation to a different country.

The limits to mobility are many; qualifications, skills, economic and social/family needs and demands. Or, in the case of many academics, a shortage of viable options elsewhere.

While there are those academics who, because of areas of expertise, reputation, skills and /or career status, are mobile, the reality is that most academics are far less mobile than many other highly-qualified workers- especially those within that banal catch-phrase ‘knowledge worker’.

This is especially so in the small, dispersed academic market in Aotearoa- NZ.

Most academics would find it very difficult to relocate to another academic job elsewhere in Aotearoa-NZ, because there are very few options. Most academics would also find it difficult to gain a similar-level job elsewhere in the world because of the limited number of comparable positions across the tertiary sector. The growth is in low-paid contract labour- in short, a model of neo-liberal outsourcing.

In areas that are seen to be globally constricting in jobs and/or opportunities, such as the Humanities, the situation is particularly problematic and visible. But the reality is that this situation is it is not restricted to the Humanities- either here or elsewhere.

The issue is that most academics are stuck where they are with little chance or hope of finding a similar job elsewhere. This is especially so once they have families and/or partners or they start to move up into that grey-zone between ‘cheap to employ’ lecturers and professors.

The outcome of this situation is that university management has in effect a largely captive workforce with few real options. Or at the very least, a workforce who feel they have few real options.  Most staff understandably take the path of least resistance, they complain and grumble privately at management decisions, cuts, impositions and restructurings, but do not speak up publicly or challenge these because of the fear of being ‘on the radar’ and then being targeted in myriad ways. Most recently, we see the effects of such a situation being experienced at Otago university: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12314949

For students of history and politics the situation is very similar to those populations who find themselves under autocratic regimes with little chance of leaving the country. There are a few dissidents and there are widespread private complaints, but there is also a culture of fear, distrust and what can be termed induced and enforced compliance. That is, we do what is demanded in the hope that we will be left alone and not noticed – and hope that if something happens it happens to someone else. We exist in what can be termed a negative status quo where the lack of widespread public dissent and critique is taken to signal that ‘most people are happy’.

I suggest that this is closer to the reality of tertiary life than most in management wish to believe.  Yet time and time again, we hear academics across the country say that while they  will complain and speak out privately, they are concerned or even fearful to do so publicly because of what they believe will be the consequences. 

In autocratic regimes and autocratic institutions, a captive, compliant population /workforce can be created through the exploitation of a widespread sense of a lack of options. You would think and hope universities would not pursue such options- and management likely will say they do not seek to do this. However, the experiences increasingly evident in the tertiary sector, here and overseas, would signal the rise of the autocratic university enabled by a captive workforce who feel they have few, realistic options.

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