In his lecture at the Collège de France on 14 March 1979, Michel Foucault (2008) highlighted the ability to migrate as one of the key attributes of the neoliberal homo œconomicus (p. 230). Migration has since become an important survival tactic for doctorate holders seeking remunerated escape from the retrenchment of the American academic job market. Universities in the emerging economies of Central and South America, Eastern Europe and Eurasia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia-Pacific constitute an important source of employment for academics unable to secure jobs in traditional markets. My own academic career spans Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and currently West Africa. Hitherto I saw my peripatetic career as unusual. However, for an increasing population of scholars this has become the new normal. In this paper I will examine the employment crisis and trace its roots in the transformed positioning of the university in the neoliberal political economy. I will next explore the challenges facing those doctorate holders who have opted to migrate for employment in foreign universities. Along with the promise of secure remuneration, these academic migrants also face significant risks. I will conclude with a reflection on the opportunities for radical pedagogy that academic migrants can seize upon for social transformation.
In January 2009, at the start of the second semester of my Ph.D. program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, I read William Pannapacker’s alarming essay “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go.” Writing under his pen name Thomas H. Benton (2009), Pannapacker highlighted the traumatic observation that “the reality is that less than half of all doctorate holders — after nearly a decade of preparation, on average — will ever find tenure-track positions” (para. 3). I was greatly alarmed when I read this, especially since the budget crisis affecting the state of Hawai‘i at the time was threatening my teaching assistantship, and I dreaded the prospect of graduating too soon with my Ph.D. but without a job. As Pannapacker vividly highlighted,
There is work for humanities doctorates (though perhaps not as many as are currently being produced), but there are fewer and fewer real jobs because of conscious policy decisions by colleges and universities. As a result, the handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery. (Benton, 2009, para. 17)
For doctoral recipients from political science, my discipline, the recent confirmation that graduates from elite programs dominate up to 50% of hiring in tenure track positions in research universities will probably not ease their job market anxieties (Oprisko, 2012, para. 4). The battered job market does not just affect the humanities and social sciences. In the sciences, “tenure-track jobs should now be considered ‘alt-ac’ positions (or alternative academic careers) because they are not the norm anymore for new Ph.D.s,” while fresh doctoral graduates who obtain postdoctoral positions are increasingly used as “cheap staff scientists” rather than being groomed for tenure-track appointments (Jaschik, 2013a, paras. 2-12). The state of the job market implies an inevitable crushing of the tenure track fantasies of most of today’s graduate students:
Graduate school may be about the ‘disinterested pursuit of learning’ for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now. (Benton, 2010, para. 20)
The retrenchment of the academic job market, as it turns out, is old news. As Michael Bérubé (2013) points out,
Since 1970 doctoral programs have been producing many more job candidates than there are jobs; and yet this is not entirely a supply-side problem, because over those 40 years, academic jobs themselves have changed radically. Of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track. (para. 4)
This new job requirement for the credential of the bachelor’s degree creates an insidious trap for job seekers who enroll in college, for the rise in the cost of college, “500 percent in the public sector since 1985” (Ross, 2012, para. 1), creates new pressures on undergraduates to find sources of income. The Chronicle of Higher Education highlights the return to body commodification among today’s college students, with “strides in medical technology, the encroachment of market values on all facets of life, and the reach and culture of the Internet” creating new opportunities for the monetization of their bodies: “students sell plasma, take requests to perform custom erotic acts on Web cameras, or offer themselves as guinea pigs in paid drug trials” (Troop, 2013, paras. 5-6).
Cost-conscious undergraduates may also be tempted by cheaper online courses. However, recent studies of such courses in Washington and Virginia by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center has revealed that “community college students who enroll in online courses are significantly more likely to fail or withdraw than those in traditional classes, which means that they spend hard-earned tuition dollars and get nothing in return” (“The Trouble With,” 2013, paras. 3-4). For such undergraduates, their pursuit of a college degree has left them in worse financial shape than before, with tuition loans significantly increasing their debt burdens. While middle-class families are increasingly afflicted by college debt (Simon & Barry, 2012), poor students who paid for college with Perkins loans and are unable to repay these loans after leaving school face legal action from their universities:
Yale, Penn and George Washington University have all sued former students over nonpayment, court records show. While no one tracks the number of lawsuits, students defaulted on $964 million in Perkins loans in the year ended June 2011, 20 percent more than five years earlier, government data show. (Lorin, 2013, para. 3)
The Neoliberal University
Concomitant with the economic woes of the undergraduate and graduate student body, the academy has witnessed a flourishing of its administrative class. According to the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, “over the last two decades, colleges and universities doubled their full-time support staff while enrollment increased only 40 percent… During the same period, the staff of full-time instructors, or equivalent personnel, rose about 50 percent, while the number of managers increased slightly more than 50 percent” (Lewin, 2009, paras. 1-2). Mark Edmundson (2012) sees this as a symptom of the transformation of the institutional culture of the academy:
Universities now teem with people who must do what people who work in corporations do: be responsive to their superiors, direct their underlings, romance their Blackberries, subordinate their identities, refrain from making mistakes, keep a gimlet eye always on the bottom line. Organization men and women have come, and they are doing what they can — for an administrator must administer something — to influence the shape of the university. (p. 2)
In a recent analysis Andrew Ross (2012) notes that the position of the university in the neoliberal economy is in fact more extensive, with their role in urban construction transforming research universities into “quasi-sovereign planning entities in the neighborhoods that host them” (para. 2). Ross identifies university administrators as being part of an “interlocking elite,” such that “senior administrators revolve between high positions in government, Wall Street, and the academy, and the capacity to draw on executive influence in each of these sectors is key to the new patterns of wealth transfer” (para. 16). These new flows of wealth between the academy and Wall Street can be mapped as follows:
The ability of universities to raise tuition fees at will (without any fear of institutional default) is the basic collateral requirement for securing a good credit rating, which makes it much cheaper to borrow money to service existing debts and finance large-scale construction… With mortgage and other credit markets still in the doldrums, universities have become a very attractive option for investors looking for high returns on debt-financed growth. Money capital has poured into construction bonds, student loans, and other financial instruments spun out of the tuition bubble. (paras. 15-17)
Indeed, observers note that “some adjuncts make less money than custodians and campus support staff who may not have college degrees… The national average earnings of adjunct instructors are just under $2,500 per course” (Patton, 2012a, para. 20). This low remuneration of adjunct labor is connected with the rise in graduate degree holders who have had to go on food stamps and other forms of public assistance. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 approximately 360,000 Americans with master’s or doctoral degrees were receiving public assistance. Between 2008-11, “the number of people with master’s degrees who received food stamps and other aid climbed from 101,682 to 293,029, and the number of people with Ph.D.’s who received assistance rose from 9,776 to 33,655” (Patton, 2012a, paras. 11-13).
Given the immiseration of the growing number of master’s and doctorate holders, William Pannapacker accurately describes graduate school as a “trap”:
It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That's why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility. (Benton, 2010, para. 22)
For those doctorate holders who are forced to seek employment outside the academy, their advanced degrees limit, rather than broaden, their job options. Pannapacker recounts:
Unfortunately, during the three years that I searched for positions outside of academe, I found that humanities Ph.D.’s, without relevant experience or technical skills, generally compete at a moderate disadvantage against undergraduates, and at a serious disadvantage against people with professional degrees. If you take that path, you will be starting at the bottom in your 30s, a decade behind your age cohort, with no savings (and probably a lot of debt). (Benton, 2009, para. 14)
To avoid immiseration and to start on their tuition loan payments, many doctorate holders have turned to visiting professorships for temporary employment while they improve their curriculum vitae in the hope of eventually securing tenured employment:
Unlike adjunct positions, which are often renewed semester by semester, visiting professorships are set by annual or even multiyear contracts, with most capped at three years. The visiting jobs often come with health benefits and offer better pay than a typical adjunct receives, with visiting professors often earning close to the same starting salary as an assistant professor. (Dunn, 2013, para. 7)
These opportunities for overseas academic employment present indebted doctorate holders an increasingly tempting line of flight from the retrenchment of the American academic job market. These academic migrants in turn manifest Michel Foucault’s (2008) gloss on mobility as one of the “elements making up human capital.” Noting that “migration has a cost,” Foucault observes that the migrant bears this cost “to obtain an improvement of status, of remuneration, and so on, that is to say, it is an investment” (p. 230).
Migration is an investment: the migrant is an investor. He is an entrepreneur of himself who incurs expenses by investing to obtain some kind of improvement. (p. 230)
Depending on the foreign university that the academic migrant finds employment in, the “improvement of status, of remuneration” can be very generous, especially if the university bears the monetary expenses of relocation and accommodation. Some academic migrants may even receive compensation and benefits similar to those of their counterparts in the corporate sector. With respect to the privileged positions many academic migrants enjoy in their host countries, they would be counted among the “expatriate talents” that Aihwa Ong (2006) describes as enjoying the entitlements of citizenship without the duties:
In global circuits, educated and self-propulsive individuals claim citizenship-like entitlements and benefits, even at the expense of territorialized citizens. Expatriate talents constitute a form of movable entitlement without formal citizenship. Citizens who are deemed too complacent or lacking in neoliberal potential may be treated as less-worthy subjects. (p. 16)
Such modulation and control of population movements can be observed in the United Arab Emirates, in particular Dubai, which is a key job market in the Middle East for academic migrants. Mike Davis (2006) notes that “Dubai, together with its emirate neighbors, has achieved the state of the art in the disenfranchisement of labour… 99 percent of the private-sector workforce are immediately deportable non-citizens” (p. 64). Stephen Germic (2009) recounts what happened to a colleague at the American University in Dubai who suddenly lost her expatriate privilege:
In fact, a previous faculty member found herself apprehended and imprisoned when she tried to leave Dubai for a brief visit home. The American University in Dubai had, after a minor contractual dispute, placed a “ban” on her visa, which meant that, if she left, she was not free to return to Dubai for a fixed period of time. The university intentionally neglected to inform her that she had been banned. Having banned her, the neoliberal state assumed she was going to default on her automobile loan, and so she was thrown in prison until the loan was paid off. (p. 142)
Academic speech can become a contested issue in foreign employment. In January 2013, Maung Zarni, a professor and democracy activist from Myanmar, resigned from his position at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) after experiencing what he described as “extreme and unprofessional academic censorship” of his human rights advocacy (Nan, 2013, paras. 1-2). According to him, in June 2012 UBD withdrew “financial and institutional support” just before his overseas trip to join Aung San Suu Kyi in a human rights panel discussion, and upon his return he was instructed “to restrict his work to non-Myanmar issues or purely academic papers” (paras. 4-6). This academic censorship prompted his resignation:
I simply could not countenance allowing my employer to intimidate me into professional silence on unfolding human rights atrocities and war crimes against Myanmar’s Muslims and ethnic minorities in Burma on account of a monthly pay check. (para. 9)
In a similar case of censorship, in February 2013 the London School of Economics and Political Science cancelled a conference it had organized with the American University of Sharjah after one of its research fellows, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, was detained and deported by the UAE (Jaschik, 2013b, paras. 2-5). In a statement, the UAE government explained that Ulrichsen had “consistently propagated views de-legitimizing the Bahraini monarchy,” and that, “at this extremely sensitive juncture in Bahrain's national dialogue” they felt “it would be unhelpful to allow non-constructive views on the situation in Bahrain to be expressed from within another GCC state” (Jaschik, 2013c, para. 2).
Reflecting on academic speech and censorship in foreign universities, Justin Martin (2012) warns that “American professors abroad can also be vulnerable to lawsuits for their public comments, especially in countries with shaky libel protections and where defamation is a criminal offense” (para. 8), and recommends:
For that reason, academics relocating to universities in authoritarian nations might request some kind of severance parachute in their contracts, should they be fired and escorted to the airport for exercising free speech… Professors teaching at indigenous universities in autocratic states, however, don’t have anchored American universities in their corner. And while some countries may not want the media blowback from firing a Western academic, it’s clear that other regimes simply don’t care. (paras. 13-14)
While the horror stories of dysfunctional foreign universities may seem clustered in the Third World, problems do exist in First World institutions. In the UK academy, the intense metricization of its audit culture has engendered in its faculty significant emotional and mental stress and loss of morale (Gill, 2010). As Roger Burrows (2012) observes, “the life-world of the university is now increasingly enacted through ever more complex data assemblages drawing upon all manner of emissions emanating from routine academic practices such as recruiting students, teaching, marking, giving feedback, applying for research funding, publishing and citing the work of others” (p. 359). Similar calculative measures have afflicted the Canadian academy, where universities suffering the effects of austerity are encouraged to “review which programs merit support according to the same quantitative and qualitative criteria,” placing the “fine arts, languages and some humanities” at risk, due to their “low enrolment and high costs” (Bradshaw, 2012, para. 3).
In France, academic migrants who labor in the Parisian campuses of American universities under adjunct contracts are deprived of the job protections enjoyed by their counterparts who labor under permanent contracts. As an instructor at the Parisian campuses of NYU and Columbia reports: “The problem is that French law doesn’t protect us, and American law doesn’t know we exist… If you get sick, you don’t get paid. Women are entitled to at least 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave under French law, but if they find out you are pregnant, they simply don’t renew your contract for the next semester. None of us have any job security” (Guttenplan, 2013, para. 8).
While academic migrants certainly assume significant risks in moving to new countries of employment, they are also potentially positioned to seize opportunities to engender social change. Aihwa Ong (2006) describes a global circuit of Western-educated “young, outwardly mobile professionals… formed through the global networks of higher education, corporate employment, and favorite vacation destinations,” and observes that they exemplify the emergence of the “knowledge-rich and globe-trotting subject with unfettered individual liberty” who is “the product of a neoliberal logic that stresses ‘the equality of worth,’ often at the expense of the equality of rights” (p. 154). The global circuit of academic migrants can be seen as distinct but occasionally intersecting with this and connected circuits of globe-trotting corporate professionals. While many academic migrants share with their corporate counterparts the neoliberal goal of maximizing their fiscal worth, a different goal is that of promoting societal transformation. This goal is connected to the notion of citizenship. Drawing on the “more expansive, ‘ethical’ version of citizenship… that encourages active involvement in social life and entails a larger scope of democratic participation within and perhaps even beyond the domain of the State,” Eugene Holland (2011) conceptualizes his post-Deleuzian notion of nomad citizenship, which “focuses less on passive rights, such as those granted to citizens by the State, and more on active engagement, on the affective dynamics of belonging and commitment to social groups of various kinds” (pp. xvii-xviii).
As Dimitris Papadopoulos and Vassilis Tsianos (2007) note, “migrants’ material becomings do not end in new states of being, rather they constitute being as the point of departure on which new becomings can emerge” (p. 228). For academic migrants and potential nomad citizens, pedagogy presents an important avenue to nurture these “new becomings.”
As new scholars, we have opportunities to engage in radical forms of teaching, research and activism. We would encourage all new academics to take the first step and realize that we are not necessarily going to be castigated for undertaking any of these. (The SIGJ2 Writing Collective, 2012, p. 1058)
What would such “radical forms of teaching” consist in? Christopher Newfield suggests pedagogy which promotes “the revelation of students’ individuality,” and which helps them “initiate actual intellectual projects of their own” (Bruno & Newfield, 2010, p. 9). Henry Giroux (2013) highlights the “need to invent modes of pedagogy that release the imagination, connect learning to social change and create social relations in which people assume responsibility for each other” (“Toward a Radical Imagination”). However, as Andrew Ross (2009) warns, academic migrants should take care that their pedagogical labor does not become the latest movement in “the tradition of colonial educations”:
All over the developing world, governments, desperate to attract foreign investment, global firms, and now, global universities, are channeling scarce public educational resources into programs tailored to the skill sets of a “knowledge society” at the expense of all other definitions of knowledge including indigenous knowledge traditions. Under these conditions, higher education is increasingly regarded as an instrumental training for knowledge workers in tune with capitalist rationality as it is lived within one of the urban footprints of corporate globalization. (p. 28)
I have written elsewhere of my students’ assertion of their agency in my philosophy classroom at Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia, my first teaching job in my career as an academic migrant (Lim, 2013a, pp. 42-44). In my current appointment at the American University of Nigeria (AUN), I was responsible for coordinating our freshman seminar program for the 2012-13 academic year, and I mandated that the freshman participants serve at least ten hours with our community development projects. AUN had established these projects as part of its broader vision of becoming “the development university for Africa” (American University of Nigeria, 2011, p. 7), and they range from counselling drug addicted youth in the local Yola-Jimeta area, providing literacy and employability skills training to residents at a local women’s shelter, tutoring children at poor neighborhood schools, and providing information technology (IT) training to local youth, among others.
In the fall 2012 semester, students from the local Benue Valley Agricultural School were ferried to AUN for IT lessons in our computer labs, and the training was provided by our freshman volunteers. Such face-to-face encounters between our privileged AUN undergraduates and the underprivileged women, youth and children of the local community, highlight to the students the human reality behind the lessons on development that they receive as part of the freshman seminar. The IT community development project, for example, brought the freshman volunteers into human contact with the impoverished peasant youth who were born on the wrong side of the global digital divide. In their lectures and assigned readings on the digital divide, the freshmen learned that “although Africa makes up 14.1% of the world population, only 2.6% of all Internet users live in Africa,” and that “concerning Africa one hence can also speak of a digital apartheid that has real-world causes such as the unequal global distribution of resources” (Fuchs & Horak, 2008, pp. 102-104). Through this community development project, these freshman volunteers met some of their fellow citizens who had never had contact with a computer, and helped give them knowledge and know-how on the use of these machines. The success of this and the other community development projects can be seen in the continued participation of many of these students in these projects after they had completed their mandatory ten hours of service. It was especially gratifying for me, as an academic migrant from Singapore, to have been able to help bring forth the affective seeds of potential social change in faraway northern Nigeria. While I cannot deny appreciating the material benefits of academic employment, I also fully appreciate the immaterial (and material) benefits for myself and my community of my work as a nomad citizen.
This paper was originally published in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor (Lim, 2013b). Since that time of writing, the crisis in academia has not only grown worse but has also gone global. In Australia, budget crises are prompting universities to consider job cuts as well as innovative cost-saving measures such as the replacement of in-person lectures and small tutorial sessions with videotaped online-only lectures and large seminar groups (Karavias, 2016; Roe, 2016; Sparvell, 2016). Departments and programs in Australian universities which are fortunate enough to have funds for hiring have become very selective given the increased competitiveness of the academic job market, with a recent study finding that hiring committes looking for early-career academics now expect them to show demonstrate not just their abilities in teaching and research, but also additional abilities in “administration and community engagement” as well, along with their network connections to “industry or international institutions” (Grove, 2016a). The crisis has even spread to Northern Europe, where formerly democratic socialist states like Denmark and Finland are now suffering fiscal austerity, with famous universities like the University of Copenhagen and the University of Helsinki annoucing massive job cuts due to budget crises (Grove, 2016b; Myklebust and Dobson, 2016; O’Malley, 2016).
In the summer of 2014, due to unexpected family reasons, the author left Yola and returned to Singapore.
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