Disruption of higher ed is here with the gig economy and the para-academic

My own organisation’s move towards separating teaching from assessment (or in simplistic terms, tutoring from marking) and the contracting out these roles is yet another signal that the “gig economy” is increasingly part of the positive disruption of the education sector that I first predicted in one of my books in 2001, and have traced in further research here and here and elsewhere.

I say overall ‘positive’ because in simple terms, it’s about making sure students can progress along a pathway of learning that’s focused on them and how they flourish in a world whose problems and challenges we expect them to solve.

Now, in the “gig economy”, rather than taking a job with a single employer, people do shorter spells of contract work, either moving from organisation to organisation or working for a range of employers at the same time. One of the reasons I’ve advocated strenuously for education to embrace a mix n match micro-credential buffet approach.

In the education sector, as Bruce Macfarlane reveals, the ‘all-round’ academic is being progressively replaced by ‘para-academics’ such as academic skills advisers, educational developers, learning technologists and online platform managers. The ‘up-skilling’ of student skills advisers and of information technology support workers into learning technologists is coincident with the ‘deskilling’ from all-round academics into para-academic roles such as quality assurance advisers, departmental heads or educational developers.

Macfarlane argues that deskilling involves a fragmentation of formerly comprehensive skill sets and the displacement of skilled labour (‘all-round’ academics) by the semi-skilled or (semi-skilled para-academics).

There is a divergence taking place between the identity of many of those working in higher education and their role. The academic role has been narrowed by a range of system-wide forces — centralisation, ‘more for less’, self-learning ideologies, economies of scale through digitisation — leading to a diminution of their teaching and administrative functions. Others with academic identities see their research role wither as they are driven into specialist functions as ‘tutors’, adjunct markers or managers. In one of the institutions I work in, it means transition from the status of a lecturer to the appellation of ‘tutor’.

Others are essentially de facto para-academics who, while formally employed as an academic, effectively focus on just one element of academic practice. An example of a de facto para-academic is a lecturer who, while formally employed to conduct teaching, research and student support, is research inactive and performs limited curriculum development functions, relying instead on referral to other para-academics (for example, educational developers).

Similarly, previous academics who are appointed to managerial roles relinquish teaching and research work completely, becoming de facto para-academics but retain an academic contract of employment for ‘teaching and research’ although in practice they are ‘just’ managers. In my own case as a previous professor and head of an academic department, chair of a faculty research committee and faculty Vice Dean I have watched these changes in close up. For example it was once a requirement that a head of a department and a dean had to teach (and assess) at least one course in order to be able the experience the ‘real world of teaching’ and be able to take this intelligence and insight forward to academic management.

Unbundling in relation to the teaching role is firmly related to the growth of online technology and increasing institutional commitment to a centralised and tightly quality-controlled curriculum.

Rather than taking responsibility for the learning and development of their own students, contemporary academics are being encouraged to restrict their involvement on the grounds that they have neither the time nor the specialist skills to support students outside their narrowed job descriptions.

The result is an emerging challenge of creating mutual understanding to resolve increasing polarisation between ‘management’, ‘researchers’, ‘faculty’ and ‘administrators’.

In the current restructuring, despite rhetoric about the using agile development methodology and consultation, in reality there is little collegiality with respect to faculty engagement with issues of curricular structure, pedagogical alternatives and student assessment. The key tenet of agile process — consistent and engaging communication with stakeholders prior to, during and post restructuring — is replaced with top-down delivery of management blueprints and shakeouts.

What are the dangers? Clearly it’s wrong to assume that staff employed on academic contracts are necessarily engaged in research and publication work. While many academic staff may be engaged in broadly defined scholarly activities, such as updating their professional or propositional knowledge base via development activities, this is not necessarily equivalent to a narrower but more performance and quality audit-driven definition of research, focusing on obtaining grants and publishing in peer-reviewed outlets. This is a worry since currently in NZ it is a requirement that anyone teaching a degree course must be actively involved in research.

The bigger problem is one of self-definition and morale. Will the quality of work of a contractor paid according to either the number of students taught or marked remain the same as when it was not the dominating factor? In the deskilling paradigm, will they be motivated to do research for which they receive no recompense as their status declines from lecturer to tutor? Why would such a person seek, or need a Masters or PhD degree?

The gig economy has been long established in areas like creative industries, design, software development, IT services, sales and marketing, administrative support and legal services, it’s now being felt at the executive level. ‘Interim executive solutions’ sees CFOs, CTOs and CEO’s becoming more common in the management space. A case of ‘good for the goose, good for the gander’, as boards become more aware of the possibility of engaging very high-calibre talent for short time spans.

As they say, watch this space.

para-academics need love too
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