Has academic life been changed irrevocably by the need for revenue?

Has academic life been changed for the better or worse by market forces?

Kristiina Brunila, Professor of Social Justice at the University of Helsinki, wrote a chapter exploring her experience and perspectives on leadership in academia in a new book Affective Capitalism in Academia: Revealing Public Secrets and voiced her concern that individual academics were managed as, “human capital consisting of ungendered productive units.”

The article goes on to discuss the impact of neoliberalism which appears to be ‘colonising all spheres of academic life’.

There is value in investing a few minutes of your morning in this piece for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Professor Brunila raises concerns with neoliberalism and the market model currently used to keep the doors of universities open in countries around the world. These are valid concerns, frequently aired on our own shores, but never sadly accompanied with viable alternative financial plans. The sector will need to do a lot less naval gazing and a lot more effective persuasion if it is going to convince the electorate and or philanthropists to cough up enough dough to be able to move away from market-based university business plans.

There is much to ponder. Taken together, human capital consisting of ungendered productive units sounds dehumanising and unappealing, but the components of that message are worthy of remark. If staff are regarded as ‘ungendered’ is that a step forward, moving towards equality and consideration of performance and position based on merit; or should we be seeking a gendered workplace, where people are treated differently and have different roles based on gender? Professor Brunila talks about the challenge of being a leader at a time when many earlier leaders had been male, and how to deal with the celebration of others and expectation that she now represent and speak up for womankind. Being allowed to own one’s gender without also accepting the baggage of roles and the operating environment can present challenges.

Similarly, is it bad to be valued or evaluated based on being productive? This is a workplace after all. Certainly the term ‘units’ has a negative appeal, but the descriptors that proceed it appear to be an affirmation of growing equality in academia.

The article progresses to examine the challenges that academic staff have transitioning to leadership roles and the expectations to manage staff as homogenous resources, evaluated based on their productive potential, asking why there are so many articles about leadership, but so few that challenge the, “efficacy of established patterns of thinking and action.” The article questions whether academic staff should be responsible for and focused on workforce productivity of subordinates – a question that many DVC Rs and CFOs have also asked, for different reasons.

There are many further dimensions to the issues that Professor Brunila raises through the course of this article, which is interesting and thought-provoking – and hence worth a few minutes of your time as you and your fellow ungendered productive units take a break for your morning flat white.