Unpaid labour in the academy: the limits of neoliberal inclusion

published anonymously

After discussing the contents of this post, we agreed with the author that they would remain anonymous. Whilst we feel the issues being raised are of importance to elucidating the nature of the challenges with ‘decolonisation’ agendas, well-meaning as they may be, there is a danger that airing views so frankly puts the author in conflict with their colleagues and employers. We agreed that it was important to share these concerns, but that it was also in the interests of the author to remain anonymous.

Higher Education the world over runs on fumes and the goodwill of people committed to expanding horizons, whether their own or those of their students and contemporaries. The number of superstar academics who are cherry-picked by the Harvards or the Oxfords on salaries to match are vanishingly small. Instead we get too-high percentages of precariously employed colleagues working across teaching, research and professional services, many of whom work to prop up a customer-oriented, neoliberal higher education system that may not offer security, but still feels like the best chance to do work that may, in one way or another, be part of helping the world to save it from itself.

Now I’m in what feels like an increasingly unique position of a permanent contract at an older, research-intensive British University. So I feel pressure, with the privilege that comes with this position, to say yes when asked to do things like convene study groups, be part of committees to promote anti-racism, inclusion or decolonisation, or take on mentoring responsibilities. Yet even with this security, I’m chronically over-worked and under-resourced and supported, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to start saying ‘no’, because it is no longer sustainable to do the amount of unpaid labour that we are expected to do to keep the show on the road. And these demands have only intensified for those of us who work in the space of ‘inclusion’. And for those of my colleagues who are precariously employed, the pressure is even worse, as these sorts of initiatives are very often a silent benchmark on how much ‘value’ one offers to the institution, with the hope that saying ‘yes’ will demonstrate a commitment that will in turn convert into more permanent employment.

For me concerns about the status of unpaid labour in the academy have intensified for PoC and those of us working in ‘decolonial’ spaces in particular as more and more institutions and ideational spaces have felt compelled to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement. Diverse manifestations of BLM have spent many decades fighting for justice against the carcerality and violence meted out to black bodies, and these demands became tragically amplified by the murder of George Floyd in 2020. It meant that collectively, no institution could look away and say honestly that they were doing enough to take anti-racism seriously. And yet these demands were and are being made within the frame of (neo)liberal democracy, which is proving to be almost no defence against the rising tide of fascism. So efforts to promote greater inclusion, to ‘decolonise’, to diversify or to ‘localise’ as part of this are under even more scrutiny amidst the contradictory efforts to on the one hand defend the existing world order (and the role and operation of neoliberal HE within it), whilst simultaneously professing to care about coloniality, equality or inclusion, without any acknowledgement that defending the former makes the achievement of the latter by definition more or less impossible.

And so we get simultaneous, contradictory commitments to, on the one hand, support for the expression of diverse ‘political’ views, without any serious challenge to the neoliberal logics that underpin the competitive processes that in turn render some ideas more worthy of funding and exploration than others. It is why we get professed commitments to ‘inclusion’ simultaneously with decisions to hold ‘international’ conferences, in-person only, in Global North cities, with no consideration for the environmental costs of everyone flying there and where carceral borders are prohibitive to so many. So what do political commitments to inclusion or decolonisation or diversity look like when the hill to climb is so steep, where even the basic social justice arguments have clearly already been lost, swept aside in favour of ‘(neoliberal) normal’?

The emerging pattern in my work life, a concern I know is shared by so many others, is that yet again the labour of broadening our horizons, to make concrete commitments to inclusion, is being handed to women of colour in the GS and GN on an unrecognised, unremunerated basis. Doing the unpaid labour of ‘decolonisation’ or ‘inclusion’ within the bureaucratic constraints of a higher education sector that has already clearly declared its political commitments as the antithesis of these efforts is too hard, too soul-destroying. I can’t see what change looks like from this vantage point without findings ways to promote genuine dialogue around how precarity, intersectional inequality and the presumed goodwill of staff are contributing to an unsustainable higher education sector that should be part of solving the world’s challenges, not adding to them.