Power relations and temporary work in academia

Faximily of the top of a poster about the panel. All photos/illustrations in this text are by the organizers.

I was recently invited to participate in a panel organized on the occasion of a visit by some researchers from UC Berkeley. I naturally made some notes in advance and as usual, I will post them here, a bit cleaned up (I did not have time to say all this during the debate).

After being invited I was a bit undecided about where I should start when commenting on these discussions. I started out going into laws and practices around temporary employment, which is stuff I know well, as a union rep, but then started to think a bit deeper - what is this really about on a deeper level, and I believe it is about power, so I'll start out talking about that, and just stop when I'm out of time.

Power relations in academia

I would like to thank the presenters for their interesting presentations about the work life of GSIs working as TAs.

I believe the core question behind many of the aspects discussed here is power relations in the workplace. Here you will find both differences and similarities in a Norwegian context. And I also think that a lot of the challenges you describe regarding GSI's also apply to a lot of other university employees.

Superficially we can categorize two types of power relations: formal and informal power relations

As a union representative many of my roles are within the *formal* power relations. Some employees are in leadership positions and as such have power over other workers. There are formal hierarchies in which TAs often are towards the bottom, but again above the students, they are TAs for.

Here there are some notable differences, I believe, between Norway, and the US. In Norway PhD students are not students - they are employees, since 20 years ago. This means they are protected by Norwegian labour laws and they are protected by our tariff agreements, particularly if they are unionized, not only in their role as TA's, but also as PhDs.

Now things have become a bit more complicated in recent years as we now have two different tariff agreements in the sector. I have argued a lot with Tord about this before, and I dont think we should go into that in any detail here, but for PhDs this means that in the tariff agreement my union is in, salaries mostly are negotiated nationally, where all employees get a certain raise, including PhDs. In the one Forskerforbundet and Tekna is in, all salaries are negotiated locally, which has ment for PhDs that they have gotten very different results at different universities and in the different tariff agreements.

However, the more informal power relations are more difficult to asses, but are often at least as important. Informal power relations at the university came to particular prominance in discussions in Norway in relation to #metoo. It seems academia was not immune to older men with grand self-images, who wollda thunk right, and some were also willing to abuse their often more subtle informal power.

I believe this is a core problem in academia. PhDs working as TAs are in a subordinated power relation also informally to supervisors, leaders and some other permanent staff, which renders them open to exploitation. Whether this actually is exploited will naturally vary very much.

This subordinate position can of course stem from several aspects of the PhD situation - one is very prominent for those who wish to pursue a career in academia: They work alongside staff who can have a huge influence on their future career opportunities via in different ways controlling the access to the professional domain they seek to enter.

The other prominent aspect I believe is in the precariousness of temporary work itself. Do I have a job nest semester? Can I pay my bills? And all that follows from this precariousness in both economic and social relations - Can I afford to have a child? These are questions that goo deep into your personal life, and as such have great power.

So what can you do? There are both more individual and systemic questions.

Individually, if you as a PhD feel you are being exploited in your work duties, you can contact your union, but of course also your department directly if you have trust in the department head.

Some of the more systemic problems, however, stem from the mentioned precariousness of temporary employment itself. And this is a subject that diserves a more thorough going throug.

Temporary work in academia

As a labor union representative, the principle of full, permanent positions is perhaps my work's central tenant. However, there are exceptions. This presentation has primarily been about PhDs, but I will start with a slightly broader perspective.

In Norway, there has always been a limit to how long you can work in a temporary position before you have the right to a permanent position. It used to be four years - that was how I got a permanent academic position some 15 years ago. This was changed by the previous conservative government to 3 years by changes in the law of government employees, but these changes had a few holes, that were made larger, prominently:

Previously one could not hire another temporary employee to replace a temporary employee - if the tasks were still there to be done, you as a temp had the right to continue. Now you can replace one temp with another freely to prevent anybody from getting three years and a permanent position.

PhDs who are employees in Norway, and post-docs are completely exempt from these rules.

In addition the general job security of public employees is reduced in recent years, and is now formally not very different from the private sector.

A final point is economy. Over the past couple of decades the economy of higher education institutions in Norway has become increasingly unstable. Increasingly larger parts of the budget has become volatile. Even parts of the money institutions get from the government are based on performance in different indicators in the style of New Public Management, but particularly in research - an increasing amount of the activity is project based.

Even if you formally have å permanent position, if it is connected to project funding, and the funding stops, then your job security, also in Norway, disappears with it. Therefore many formally permanent positions, are also de facto temporary, of which we have recently seen quite horrific examples here at NTNU as well.

I recently talked to an old friend of mine who graduated at the same time I did, who has been working at the university of Oslo for 20 years now, mainly on different projects, and who just now got a real permanent academic position.

This practice has dire effects. First of all for young people, who are in the phase of their lives when many start families, but who get no financial security, and no social security, perhaps having to move to another city or country to get another temporary academic position. This does not necessarily fit in with the plans of partners or children. Neither does not having a permanent position fit well with getting a housing mortgage.

For academia we can see a slight decline over time of how attractive we are as a workplace. While I have always made a few hundred thousand kroner less a year than fellow graduates who went to the private sector, I have in academia had more autonomy, being able to control how I work, having my own office, deciding where to direct my research, and working in a democratic sector - an institution built on ideas I believe in.

But gradually these perks of academia has ben picked away on. Democratic elections of leaders are gone. The autonomy has been gradually reduced by both incentive-based NPM creating pressure to produce different indicators, funds earmarked for "strategic areas of research", the need to constantly apply for grants to get funds to do your job. Job security has as I have said been reduced. And even my office is in jeopardy in the coming years with new campus plans.

If the university is to be run like a business anyway, why not just as well work in the private sector and get paid twice as much?

So what should we do?

Simple stuff - reverse the reductions in job security imposed by the former government.

When regarding PhDs I do not believe they should have an automatic right to permanent employment after graduation, but we in NTL believed at least that their duty work should be calculated into the three years that give a permanent position.

And we should rework the entire system for financing research and higher education, giving institutions and departments the economic stability needed to hire people permanently.

This won't solve everything, but it would be a huge step in the right direction, I believe.

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