Quiet Quitting

Not long ago I had lunch with a friend and former colleague from Sussex now working elsewhere. During the conversation I found myself saying words to the effect of “It’s only easy being a manager of something if you don’t care”. Speaking in the context of University management I meant “care” about the things that matter, i.e. staff and students and teaching and research, not metrics, rankings and key performance indicators.

Over the years that I’ve worked in universities, I’ve seen them systematically taken over by people who really don’t care at all about the important things. The result among ordinary staff is exhaustion caused by the overwork required to meet arbitrary criteria of productivity imposed by a remote and uncaring managerial class. Universities are thus a microcosm of neoliberal society at large, with the management being the propertied class, the academics being the workers, and the students being mere commodities.

The drive to alienate and demoralize staff through overwork accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Teaching staff were required to transform their working methods, undertake countless hours of unpaid overtime and suffer long periods of isolation and stress. Being a Head of Department with lots of responsibilities but no actual power and no reduction in teaching load to compensate for the administrative burden, compounded this They did it because they knew there was an emergency and because they actually care. In return for this sacrifice they have generally received no appreciation except for platitudes and nothing by way of financial compensation, with the notable exception of Queen’s University Belfast which paid a bonus to staff in recognition of their exceptional efforts. Well done to them, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Elsewhere the only reward for efforts during the pandemic looks likely to be real-terms cuts in pay.

My worry, which is rapidly becoming reality, is that in the post-pandemic era The Management, aware of how far their employees were prepared to go during the pandemic, will continue to take them completely for granted, increase their workload by recruiting more and more students to be taught with fewer and fewer resources, all of it driven by financial targets. Why do we continue to put up with this gross exploitation? Are we doomed forever to labour under the dead weight of managerialism?

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a number of articles about quiet quitting, most recently this one in the Guardian. Roughly speaking “quiet quitting” means fulfilling one’s contract but not going any further – no work at evening or weekends, taking one’s full holiday entitlement, and so on. Staff have generally done these things because they care but that care has been and is still being systematically exploited. Indeed, it says something about the way higher education institutions operate nowadays that “working to contract” is generally regarded as a form of industrial action! Universities would grind to a halt without the good will of staff, and there’s very little of that still left. In my own case, my employer still hasn’t fulfilled the terms of my employment contract almost five years after I joined.

So am I now going to join the ranks of those quitting quietly? You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment. What I will say is that my union, IFUT, is going to ballot its members next month on industrial action over pay. I think you can probably guess which way I’ll be voting…

6 Responses to “Quiet Quitting”

  1. Agree with a lot of what you say. However I imagine that the problem with quiet quitting in academia is that teaching and admin workloads are (generally) fixed, so not working evenings and weekends will most likely have more of an impact on research than anything else, as that is the ‘flexible’ quantity.

    Yes, QUB has been an outlier I believe in payments to staff in recognition of effort. I wish that it had been scaled, with more given to the lower paid people and less to the higher paid, but probably easiest to just have a cross-the-board payment. Hopefully other HEIs will follow…

  2. “increase their workload by recruiting more and more students to be taught with fewer and fewer resources”

    Someone once told me on MBA’s students are taught such a technique to increase employees workload and stress. The idea is to keep going until the point where things break, then row back slightly and that’s your optimal point to get maximum work for least cost. No idea if this is true or not.

    • telescoper Says:

      In the university system I’m convinced the aim is to force full-time academics out so they can be replaced by casual staff at much lower cost.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Administrators were originally hired by academics to do the admin, but they have taken over. In fact they have only as much power as a university’s most senior professors let them have. Time for a cull of these parasites, and time for the senior profs to dictate at the same time what admin should be junked. Dictate, not request. It may even be best to sack the lot and get academics to DIY admin. Then the people who do it have incentive to do less of it instead of more of it. Offer to cut the government in on money saved in return for less feedback on targets to them.

    • telescoper Says:

      Senior professors don’t actually have much power anymore. The Governing Bodies who make the appointments of Senior Managers, including Vice-Chancellors (or Presidents or Principals or whatever), are stuffed full of business types. Mere academics have little say in what goes on.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Part of the trouble, I think, came when parity with traditional academic subjects was granted to teacher training colleges and degrees in ‘education’. The lecturers therein were often failed subject academics and, touting themselves as experts in education (which is what universities are supposed to do), devoted themselves to admin and to rising that way.

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