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Though universities are often considered bastions of liberalism, they have in fact become leading models and producers of part-time and insecure labor, and this harming the quality of higher education, says Robert Samuels

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our discussion with Bob Samuels. He’s the president of the UC-AFT, the union representing 4,000 librarians and lecturers in the University of California public university system. He teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Author of seven books, including Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free: How to Decrease Cost and Increase Quality at American Universities.

Thank you so much for joining us again, Bob.


NOOR: So, in the first part of our discussion, we talked about why you think higher education should be free. And in a second part, let’s talk a little–about something you argue in your book. And you say that while universities are often seen as the last bastion of liberalism, they actually exploit their workers to a very extreme level. And they’ve also–and this has helped lead to global neoliberalism. Talk about what you mean.

SAMUELS: Well, just looking at the faculty, 75 [incompr.] about 25 years ago, 75 percent of them had secure jobs that were full-time jobs, and now 75 percent of them have part-time jobs. Many times their jobs, they don’t have benefits. And so we’ve moved from this very professional middle-class job to part-time job. Often these people have to get public assistance in order to survive. And so these institutions, which are really about social and economic mobility, it turns out they rely on exploitation of part-time labor.

And it’s even worse. I mean, they also rely a lot on interns, on students getting internships, or students working at the colleges and universities at a very low rate, sometimes without any pay. They also rely on graduate students, who are often training to be professors but act as part-time teachers while they’re getting their doctoral degrees, and then, when they finish their degrees, they often can’t find a job. So they build up massive debt. They’ve worked ten years as part-time teachers, and they end up with a part-time job.

And so the whole labor system that circulates around a university ends up producing more and more part-time people, people without benefits, people with insecure jobs, people who can be fired at any moment, people without any type of academic freedom or control over their work.

NOOR: And you argue that this has helped usher in, in a way, global neoliberalism. What do you mean, exactly, by that?

SAMUELS: Well, if you look throughout the world, areas where there were stable professions, like the law profession, the medical profession, and also the education profession, where people had full-time, secure jobs, had careers, those things have been modified, and often what we call casualized labor. What’s happened is they’ve been translated into a series of part-time jobs. And many of these transformations started first at universities, not only the faculty, but other types of job at the university, and people have been trained, basically, to accept part-time jobs or internships where they get paid nothing. And so, basically, the university has been like a model and a producer of part-time insecure labor.

NOOR: And faculty at these universities often have a massive differential in pay compared to administrators, or, in many cases, where some of the highest-paid state officials in entire states are actually, like, football coaches or basketball coaches at public universities.

SAMUELS: Right. Another thing that ties into neoliberalism is this increase in economic inequality. So what you have at universities and colleges, you have top administrators, the people kind of running the show, making hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes, you know, close to $1 million, and coaches making over $1 million, and all these people who are not connected to the essential mission of research and teaching, they’re making all of the money. Meanwhile, the people who are doing the basic function of teaching students and doing important research often have very low wages and very insecure jobs.

NOOR: And what impact has this had on learning and on students?

SAMUELS: Well, there’s many different impacts. One is that their teachers often are now part-time, teaching at many different institutions, and even though they try very hard, they often are not in a position to teach in an effective manner. They can’t meet with students after class. They can’t write letters of recommendation. They’re running between jobs. They can only spend a small amount of time on papers. And one of the really bad things is they are often judged by student evaluations. So the students then can basically get rid of a teacher who’s too difficult or too challenging, and the teachers have to teach in a very defensive manner because they’re afraid of getting bad student evaluations.

NOOR: And finally, on The Real News we like to talk about solutions. We know you are calling for free higher public education. What can be done to improve working conditions at universities?

SAMUELS: Well, what I’m arguing is that the federal government should give a certain amount of money to each institution on the condition that they maintain that 75 percent of their faculty are full-time faculty, that they spend at least 50 percent of the funding on direct instructional costs, and that they only have–less than 25 percent of their classes have more than 25 students in them, so basically forcing colleges and universities to put money into the classroom, and also to kind of reward secure faculty and make education once again the central focus of the institutions.

NOOR: And, you know, there’s a couple of proposals–there’s one in Oregon, there’s one in Tennessee–to make college more affordable, and plans on subsidizing higher education for all high school graduates. What do you think of these proposals?

SAMUELS: Well, for instance, the plans coming out of–I guess it’s Mississippi and Tennessee, the big problem there is they’re talking about paying for tuition at community college. But if you look at the total cost of going to college, tuition is only usually about a third of it. And so the reason why students go into debt is they have to pay for everything that’s not tuition. They have to pay for the books, the living expenses, the, you know, room and board, and everything else related to education. And so what will happen–and we’ve seen this in other places–is that if you just make tuition free and you don’t provide any other type of financial aid, students will actually increase their debt and will have to work more in order to stay in school.

NOOR: Well, Bob Samuels, thank you so much for joining us.

SAMUELS: Thank you.

NOOR: You can check out both parts of our interview with Bob at Follow us on Twitter @therealnews. Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.

Thank you so much for joining us.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Bob Samuels is President of UC-AFT, the union representing 4,000 librarians and lecturers (non-tenured faculty) in the UC system.  He teaches writing at UCSB, and is the author of seven books, including Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free.