Higher Education II: Academic Inequality

Once upon a time….

Inequality has become the defining issue of our times. It’s clear that we are entering a new gilded age where a few own almost everything and most of us own almost nothing. My academic colleagues are usually sensitive to the issues surrounding inequality and most of them support policies aimed at reducing inequality.

Unfortunately, they are much less likely to address inequality in their own backyard. Unsurprisingly, academia is replicating unequal structures found elsewhere in society. Whether it’s the use of adjuncts for teaching or graduate students and postdocs for research, academic capital is an exploitative employer of labor.

Consider this: most scientists are well into their thirties before they finish their postdoctoral career and are eligible for a faculty position. In other words, by the time they’re eligible for a faculty position, they have worked for ten or more years for almost no pay while the fruits of their labor accrue to their supervisors. All for the promise of tenure and respectability. It’s becoming clear that for most people, there’s no rainbow at the end of the horizon. Or should I say there’s only a rainbow at the end of the horizon: a pretty mirage that vanishes as you start looking for it.

Unsurprisingly, graduate students and postdocs are beginning to look at other avenues. The critics of higher education are focusing their ire on undergraduate education; they rightfully complain about rising costs and diminishing value. They believe that higher education is about to undergo a revolution. I agree, but we should also look at the structural damage spreading through post-graduate training, for that’s where scholars replicate themselves. The academic species has accumulated too many harmful mutations at a time when it’s ecological niche is also undergoing rapid change. We are being undermined both within and without.

I have been reading the burgeoning literature — mostly informal, in blogs and other online posts — on the experience of academic failure. Here are some recent articles that talk about the crisis:

  1. Academia and the people without jobs.
  2. The PhD Bust.

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