Is the move online adding to casualisation of HE work?

Within the emerging critical literature on edtech in higher education and its impact on academic labour, with rare exceptions, little attention has been paid to the outsourcing of teaching through online programme management providers (OPMs), and how it contributes to the casualisation of academic work inside and within traditional university settings.

Scholarship on digital and platform labour in other sectors suggests that the forms of casualisation they encourage are deeply gendered and racialised. Bringing these different spheres of scholarship such as critical higher education studies, technology-enhanced learning and research on platform labour together seems essential to grasp the actual and potential impact of digitalisation on the most vulnerable higher education workers.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to online teaching, it is ever more pertinent to ask: are edtech and OPMs producing ever more de-professionalised low-paid positions, transforming the very social conditions of academic labour in higher education?

Impact of digital technologies

While research has usually been championed over teaching, students at top-ranked research universities are often taught by precarious faculty and assisted by academically trained workers in administrative and academic-related positions.

These workers (usually women, people with caring responsibilities and those from low-income families) are treated as second-class citizens in academia. They gradually fall from academic careers as they cannot fit the norm (usually embodied by men) of care-less individuals, available to work 24/7 and travel internationally to avail themselves of networking or funding opportunities.

With the introduction of online learning as a means to cut costs, commercially driven forms of online education have promoted not only the need for new, often time- and labour-intensive pedagogies, but also expectations and conditions of teaching that feed into further exploitation and alienation:

• The annihilation of space and time (on-demand content accessible anytime from anywhere), the unfettered flow and transmission of knowledge as pure information content, that leads to the standardisation of content and disembodiedness and deskilling of teaching.

• A vision of higher education as targeted ‘services’ and microcredentials, ‘nano-degrees’ and ‘bite-size, content’ that student consumers can mix and match according to job market demands.

• New surveillance mechanisms and expectations for instructors of constant online availability.

• Less requirement for the physical presence of faculty on campus and thus further pushing the precarious teaching workforce out of the ‘real’ academic community, as well as the requirement for precarious academics to use their own devices, spaces and facilities.

• A persistent, particularly gendered imperative to care for students also within online interfaces where pastoral care work requires new skills and approaches, but is still naturalised and exploited as a ‘gift’ to students, showing ‘loyalty’ to institutions and ‘loving one’s work’.

Most studies of such processes are missing a growing precarious academic workforce working in outsourced services, outside the universities. What is more, since COVID-19 hit us, universities have rolled out the red carpet for companies offering digital devices and services. But what impact are these processes having on workers?

Digital disruption or unbundling of higher education

The process of unbundling higher education aka digital disruption is a specific avenue where processes of outsourcing of academic labour take place. Unbundling is the process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts and delivery of education in different combinations, often through public-private partnerships and the use of digital approaches.

‘Unbundled’ micro-credentials have been praised as being less financially burdensome for students and as being beneficial for employers.

Already before the COVID-19 pandemic, profitable OPMs partnered with universities. Among OPMs, there are around 60 world players currently estimated to reach over three billion people and predicted to reach 7.7 billion by 2025.

OPMs get 50% to 70% of course fee revenue and access to profitable big data from students in return for start-up capital, risk absorption, platform, marketing and recruitment aid.

A difference between OPMs and other players in the edtech sector offering digital devices or services is that OPMs do not offer the ‘frills’ of universities but provide what is considered the ‘core business’ of universities: curriculum design and delivery, teaching, student support and supervision.

To do that, they rely partly on the labour of university-hired academics, but mostly on that of academically trained and precariously OPM-employed academics who do low-paid jobs on short contracts that include unpaid tasks.

A second difference: unlike most other private education providers, except for commercial publishers, OPMs use the established brands of existing universities in order to sell their product. That way the promise of radically ‘disrupting’ the elite ‘bundle’ of residential universities does not challenge rankings and academic fame.

The (post)pandemic future?

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a process which is already underway. Using the brands of universities which generate income from student fees, university-OPM partnerships have already opened a new page in the de-professionalisation and fragmentation of academic labour.

With content put online and ‘facilitated’ by workers often trained to a postgraduate or post-PhD level, university-OPM partnerships use two types of unpaid or poorly paid labour:

• Often (though not only) precarious university-hired academics whose workloads intensify and extensify all at once to absorb a second shift of online teaching, often within the same time schedule and with little extra support or remuneration.

• Precarious, de-professionalised and increasingly deregulated and poorly paid contract labour, outsourced academics hired through OPMs: content curators, forum managers, online support officers – their job descriptions proliferate and they are invisible, fragmented and isolated.

Given that teaching has become a job of ‘second-class citizens’ (casualised workers, often women and people of colour) in academia, ‘unbundled’ teaching-only positions inside and outside academia are frequently the only type of employment such people with complex lives can aspire to.

With the pandemic push toward home-based child and elderly care and online teaching, gendered divisions have deepened.

One can predict this might become an epidemic (or post-pandemic) development after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unless it is taken into consideration by traditional academic trade unions – which so far have either stayed in blissful ignorance or turned a blind eye to these developments – this new ‘generation’ of precarious, outsourced workers will present a new challenge to mobilising and collective bargaining in higher education.

Dr Mariya Ivancheva is lecturer at the Centre for Higher Education Studies, University of Liverpool, United Kingdom. Her work focuses on the digitalisation, casualisation and outsourcing of academic labour, intersectional inequalities and the role of universities and their communities in processes of social change, especially from and to socialism. Dr Aline Courtois is senior lecturer in the department of education, University of Bath, United Kingdom. Her research interests revolve around elite education, globalisation, internationalisation, international student mobility and academic precarity and academic mobility. Professor Dr Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela works at the faculty of education, Universidad de Tarapacá, Chile. Her research focuses on neoliberalism and its impact on universities, the public/private distinction in higher education, and the North-South divide and its impact on the construction of knowledge. The authors propose a comparative study in two contrasting countries, the UK and Chile, whose higher education systems are highly marketised to explore the issues raised in this article further. They will aim to trace how core teaching functions have changed in both contexts, including in their temporality and spatiality, due to the newly emerging partnerships for online higher education provision before and over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article was first published on