the university is a factory, lets treat it as one

By Sebastian Wright

Lecturers and students alike nowadays cynically describe university education as a ‘factory’. This is, of course, a term of abuse – just think of the disturbing image from Pink Floyd’s The Wall of a conveyor belt of comprehensive students dropping into the mincing machine and emerging as a string of sausages out the other side.

Pink Floyd's The Wall presents education as a factory process as a dystopian nightmare, but does looking at it this way really need to be a problem?

The notion of the University as a mechanised profit machine is where the term derives its critical force. When the philosophy department at Middlesex University was shut down, the ‘Save Middlesex Philosophy’ campaign’s occupation strung an enormous banner out of a first floor window reading: ‘The University is a Factory[.] Strike! Occupy!’ The slogan became the emblematic image of the campaign, and hanging above a neoclassical statue with fist pumped into the air, it endowed the campaign with an uncompromising, industrial proletariat aesthetic that served to reinforce its militant credentials.

An industrial struggle aesthetic out of sync with the educational idealism of the campaign?

Yet as the campaign wore on it became less clear how far the campaigners would be willing to take the slogan literally. As was almost inevitable, educational idealism crept back into the vocabulary—talk of the department’s outstanding research scores, of the nobility of the humanities against the dehumanizing levelling of business utility thinking, and suchlike idealistic proclamations, became rife. In speeches given at different campaign events both Tariq Ali and Paul Gilroy stressed the need to fight for ‘high quality education’ and advised a tactical coalition with conservative professors—and even that well-known man of letters, London Mayor Boris Johnson—in order to fight against the philistine effects of market pressures in higher education. The conclusion of the campaign, where the prestigious research centre housed in the department, the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP), was relocated to Kingston University, leaving some lecturers and all of the undergraduate students behind, reflected the drift towards the idealism of research over and above the University as a site of industrial struggle.

But is this attitude of treasuring the nobility of education against the mediocre levelling processes of educational marketisation the correct approach to take? Or should we rather accept that the University sector already operates according to Taylorist management practices and simply fight within this given arena for egalitarian principles and for self-management? At The Commune’s day conference, From Crisis to Upheaval, the session on University education flagged up a number of troubling trends, regarding which deciding between the above paradigms would seem crucial.

The SOAS occupation over cleaner deportations drew about a hundred people to its rally, but where were all of SOAS' 'radical' academics?

The first point to come up was a critical reflection on the lack of political engagement of ‘radical’ academics—Marxist or otherwise—and how there seems to be no translation from critical thinking in the scholastic debating chamber to actual support for struggles taking place even within their own workplaces, including for the cleaners who sweep their departmental corridors. More generally, this separation of University based critical theory from actual movements was considered not to reflect well on the left’s cherished role for the University as a bastion against capitalism, insofar as the separation of the economy of theory from the economy of struggle actually works in the interests of capital, not against it. For instance, during the occupation of the SOAS directorate over union-busting deportations of migrant cleaners, very few of the overwhelmingly lefty SOAS staff came outside to show any solidarity during the rallies. Renowned Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, strolled past the rally with apparently little interest.

The second point to be raised was the tendency towards casualisation amongst University staff. This includes the increasing composition of temporary staff, workers on sessional teaching contracts, and the way the increasing burden of work is being shifted to PhD students who are remunerated at a rate that is wholly inadequate to draw a living from. For example, 4 hours teaching a week during the academic year, which is calculated at 10 hours including preparation time, will net a teacher around £2,600, and this includes the marking of all the essays and the answering of emails and possibly office hours too. By contrast, a full-time junior academic in the University of London, can be expected to start on about £39,000 a year, for a similar amount of teaching. The point of this comparison is not to foment resentment against those on decent work contracts, but rather to show how—structurally—graduate students as an exploited class in the University’s internal economy, are used to depress wages, limit full time job openings, and operate in sync with the tendency towards pay-per-hour lecturers across the University sector as a whole.

Why, then, do PhD students opt to take on such work, and why do lecturers accept sessional contracts? After all, this teaching work is competitive to acquire, and if one does not take it there will be plenty of others willing to do so. The answer lies in the relationship between students and education, of which the PhD student/causal worker represents the limit case. For what drives PhD student teachers is resume building; what drives casualised University workers is staying within the system. In both cases, consciously submitting to exploitation is premised on the belief that the future will hold out better things to come: that temporary pain will pave the way to long-term success. It is a hedge on the future. In caustic, deadpan prose a theoretical text from the Occupy California movement puts it well:

Graduate school is simply the faded remnant of a feudal system adapted to the logic of capitalism—from the commanding heights of the star professors to the serried ranks of teaching assistants and adjuncts paid mostly in bad faith.  A kind of monasticism predominates here, with all the Gothic rituals of a Benedictine abbey, and all the strange theological claims for the nobility of this work, its essential altruism.  The underlings are only too happy to play apprentice to the masters, unable to do the math indicating that nine-tenths of us will teach 4 courses every semester to pad the paychecks of the one-tenth who sustain the fiction that we can all be the one.  Of course I will be the star, I will get the tenure-track job in a large city and move into a newly gentrified neighborhood.[i]

These observations highlight the role of fantasy intrinsic to University system at every level. Students take out large amounts of debt in order to finance their degrees on the hope that it will improve their job prospects. PhD students submit to teach these students—and take out more debt to support their underpaid work—on the hope that it will one day lead to a permanent job. PhD students graduate, fail to find permanent work, but accept woefully remunerated casual teaching in order to stay within the system, on the chance that they still may have a shot at that precious position that will one day be theirs. Undergraduate students finish their degrees, and accept unpaid internships for years on end—if mummy and daddy’s wallets are sufficiently endowed—so that they still might have a shot at getting a professional job. If this fails to materialize, never mind, Masters programs will happily take them in for anything between £4,000 to £20,000 a year to perpetuate the illusion.

It is not so much the case that the University education system stands outside the political economy of Western capitalism, then, as much as it is intrinsic to and reflective of its overall tendencies. This is why attempts to appeal to some noble, idealistic, higher ground that University research supposedly occupies is not only subscribing to a fiction, but a convenient fiction critical for the very depoliticization and exploitation undertaken within the system.

The upshot is that if there is somewhere to start in organizing within Universities is should not be for some transcendent cause of ‘high quality education’, but instead to make transparent precisely the materialist workings of the educational economy. The cleaners’ struggles that are currently taking place within Universities are a good start. The same principle should be expanded to teaching staff too. And, ultimately, to the consumers of the University’s goods, the students, who are increasingly going into deeper and deeper debt to finance their studies. Only from this starting point of thinking the University’s role without illusions can the more tricky questions about the future of education be addressed.


16 thoughts on “the university is a factory, lets treat it as one

  1. This is an interesting and challenging piece. I’d like to see the author develop these ideas and themes in future pieces. Given that the university sector is going to be subjected to cuts of up to 35% and will be the site of a lot of struggles over the next few years, it would be helpful to see some discussion of what it is we ought to be fighting for. This sort of brutal exposition is helpful in beginning to clarify that.


  2. Thanks for this. Really interesting stuff. I’d like to see you develop on the point of the university being a factory into the realm of workers’ control! ;)


  3. Hello. I found this through Derek Wall’s site. It is a very strong analysis in my books on a topic I am under-informed on. The only quibbly-jibbly thing I would say is that Boris Johnson is the London Mayor not Major although maybe that is an implicit point about 21st century militarisation in Britain. Or maybe Johnson is John Major in the form of a hologram. Or a shape-shifting Boxcar Willy lizard. Or maybe I’ve just been in the internet too long.

    Congratulations on the article.



  4. “In both cases, consciously submitting to exploitation is premised on the belief that the future will hold out better things to come: that temporary pain will pave the way to long-term success. It is a hedge on the future.”

    THAT is the nub of the issue and very cogently expressed. It is the essence of the problem with 21st century employment across the board and across the globe. Those two sentences are the description of a malaise.



  5. Thank you Lee, Tami and Matt. I will try to develop this analysis further in the future as you suggest.

    Typos duly noted and corrected!


  6. Thanks Sebastian. You’ve inspired me to push forward an idea I already had.

    In my forthcoming art exhibition “One Man Banned” one of the themes is precisely that illusory cycle of ‘do this exploitative task and that will get you a better CV so you can progress’ – meaningless if there is a relentless process of devaluation of the status of that extra line in the CV so that when you come to the next opportunity your previous drudgery is wiped out and you’re back to square one. I’m not explaining it well but it’s Sisyphus in employment and it’s a form of incarceration. It is now endemic.


  7. A junior lecturer would not be paid 39,000 because the lecturer pay scale stops before then, 39 would place it well within the senior lecturer scale…sorry to be pedantic, but I don’t know where you get your info from, but it’s wrong!


  8. I found the piece interesting and provoking, with a lot to agree on, but also left me with some questions.
    In terms of ‘research idealism’, couldn’t this be seen as a materialist defence of the students at so-called ‘new’ institutions being taught by staff engaged with intellectual culture/production? One of the deskilling operations of ‘Taylorisation’ (although I’d quibble with this as a characterisation of the university as a whole) is to impose poor quality education, so quality is a political issue, I think. I agree we might want to find better grounds than quasi-humanist ones to make this defence.

    Also, on the ‘taylorisation’ point the university seems to be more neo-liberal office place than a factory. Perhaps not so engaging a proposition but the move to departmental and self-entrepreneurialisation (ie bringing in research grants, internal markers/competition, perpetual training, and so on) seem to be the model; what Deleuze called perpetual ‘modulation’ in ‘The Society of Control’. This would also fit with your point about academia requiring people to basically have another source of income to become academics. I was lucky enough, coming from as aspirant working-class background, to make it through on the end of the grants/funding system. This pulling-up of the drawbridge is, I think, one of the most pernicious ongoing effects of the neoliberalisation/real subsumption of education.

    I can’t speak for what you say about lack of left-wing faculty engagement in struggles, although its depressing. I think it’s worth remembering that ‘radical’ academics are a minority, and that making connections and developing joint struggles (as you rightly suggest) is key.

    Also, we can make it clear how bad things are but does that defend jobs or education? I realise that’s the difficult question, but making a new defence is really necessary.

    Anyway thanks for your thought-provoking piece, and I think we’ll find we are in a period of ‘factory closures’…


  9. Seb, that is inclusive of London weighting, which is around 3 grand, no new lecturer would start at 39,000 they would be a senior lecturer at that rate and that would mean either serious research record, or course leadership duties or similar levels of responsibility, you must also remember that many staff are part-time and earn nowhere near those amounts.


  10. @Noel

    Is it of any consequence whether that includes London weighting? The point was comparative. The London weighting for lecturers is more than most PhD teaching assistants make in a year, and they also happen to live in London.

    I agree that many staff are part-time and earn nowhere near these amounts, but that was part of the piece’s argument: the drift towards casualisation and the depression of wages.


  11. Also, the bottom of the UCU pay scale does not apply for academic staff on full time contracts, so it is a total red herring to pull that out.

    In any case, even at 40 hours per week (contact time + prep) teaching assistants come in at only £10,400 for the academic year according to my University’s pay scale. Although it is theoretically possible that this could be supplemented by working during the long summer break, it is unlikely that temporary casual work over the summer would add much more than possibly £5,000 to that (even if such work could be found) and so, in sum, those who do a good portion of the teaching and assessment work in University departments are amongst the worst paid workers in Universities.

    Why you seem intent on downplaying this fact I am not sure…


  12. Seb, having been a teaching assistant, and on every kind of crappy teaching contract you can get in my time, I am not taking issue with the general theme of the piece, I’m just saying that for many/possibly most lecturers the pay picture isn’t as necessarily rosy as you make out, especially when the numbers of hours worked is taken into account. I have no problem with phd students getting paid decent rates, nor anyone for that matter!


  13. Thank you for the analysis. It was well articulated and as an undergraduate considering seriously about taking on a PHD I appreciate some attention being given to this issue. At my university our philosophy department has been starved of some of the most exciting modules this year due to the recent cuts, which leaves myself and other students being forced to choose modules that may not reflect what we want to take up further on in our academic endeavors. Also, a lot of our counselling facilities are being cut, which will leave students with less support than before. I have been involved in the Anti Cuts and Fees campaign at our uni, but unfortunately, the general mood of our student body is that of apathetic at worst, and disillusioned at best. It is hard to spark the fighting spirit in a student body who, for many of them, look at university more as a business investment than an opportunity to discover a fascinating myriad of thinkers, researchers, lifestyles, to develop ones identity, among so many other opportunities university can offer. It is really saddening to see the quality of teaching and courses available being compromised to suit a capitalist market.


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