US: Extreme work-study

In the United States, the folk culture of higher education is deeply committed to the notion that higher education remains closely associated with higher wages. The truth is more complicated: more and more people have attempted to gain the higher education wage benefit in the past four decades, and real wages for many of those with advanced degrees have declined, rather than risen, writes Marc Bousquet, a member of the council of the American Association of University Professors and associate professor of English at Santa Clara University. In an excerpt in Academic Matters, adapted from his book How The University Works: Higher education and the low-wage nation, Bousquet explores the relationship of mass higher education in the US to a global shift toward precarious employment.

The benefit for advanced degrees is increasingly associated with the business, technical and vocational curriculum, and with graduate and professional degrees, rather than simply "going to college". Furthermore, the growing gap between the wages of those with higher education and those without has more to do with extreme downward pressure on the wages of those at the bottom. Today, 70% of American high school graduates enrol in some form of higher education the autumn after receiving the degree - and their motivation is often directly vocational, an explicit effort to escape the extreme low wages and extreme precariousness of those in the bottom half. A very large fraction of them fail in this attempt: US community college students' three-year completion rate of two-year degrees is about 25%, and institutions with single digit success rates (6%, 8%) are fairly common.

Despite startlingly poor measures of student success, as every aspect of life becomes more precarious, more and more individuals and families pour their entire resources into higher education, often assuming debt that pushes them into bankruptcy, chasing the security offered by fewer and fewer positions.

Rather than resolving precariousness, however, US higher education directly benefits from precarious work arrangements as an employer in its own right. In fact, higher education is the leading innovator of late-capitalist, post-Fordist contingent employment, continuously pushing the envelope of un- or under- compensated work. A complex web of law, policy, and custom has created an absolutely marvellous circumstance for many higher education employers: they have vast workforces of persons that they don't have to treat as workers, either because they don't think of themselves as employees, or because US law and policy deny them internationally acknowledged workplace rights.

This is best understood in connection with the perma-temping of the faculty: as of 2005, no more than 30% of US faculty were in the tenure stream, and the trend line points sharply down. Less well understood is the relationship of the US system of graduate education to perma-temping - the wholesale abuse of the apprentice system, the near-universal substitution of graduate student labour for faculty labour on a permanent, structural basis. As a result, in some disciplines the majority of grad students are already working in the only academic job they'll ever have.

Even less well understood is the extent to which U.S. higher education is actively facilitating the similar and parallel substitution of undergraduate student labour for full-time workers with benefits throughout the economy, on campus and off.
Full excerpt published on the Academic Matters website