Student Labour, Again

Nina Power’s Infinite Thought has posted a link a column by Simon Jenkins on the Guardian website. IT picks up on the glaring gaffe in Jenkins’s piece.

They occupy underused buildings. They pretend that teaching a degree requires three or four years of withdrawal from the labour market during the most energetic and potentially productive part of a young adult’s life.
Ask any student’s parent, indeed ask any honest student. Except at the very best universities, they all have horror stories to tell, of teaching confined to September to Easter, near zero personal contact, two or three poorly marked essays a term, teachers absent on trips and sabbaticals, days spent doing nothing much and almost half a year on holiday, much of it trying to earn money to pay for the nothing much. Universities take extraordinary amounts of time off, basing their teaching on the medieval calendar, observing harvest-time and holidays for religious observance.

Powers picks up on the student labour angle:

And as if students aren’t also working throughout their degree, both in the summers and term-time, to pay their fees, rent and living costs. As if students are sitting around doing nothing but drinking and arsing about. I don’t know a single student for whom that’s true: they know, as Jenkins apparently does not, that they cannot afford to.

Within the labour movement this is a classic argument about productivity. ‘Productivity’ is code for the process of producing what Marxists used to call surplus value. ‘Time’ is not being used effectively enough. Right. My ethos is that when I am awake, I can be labouring. I have never been idle, even when teaching across three universities as a casual academic.
But back to student labour. I wrote about this when a similar argument was mobilised by the economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald a couple of years ago. What I wrote:

1) ‘Student’ is a structural subject position within the labour market. There are ‘student’ jobs. ‘Students’ get a discount on a lot of things from movies to public transport. The character of the labour of a ‘student’ is primarily based in the service industry and organised around affective labour. The economy (and hence capitalists) need students to carry out ‘student’ labour. I worked in a servo [gas station] the four years of my undergraduate honours degree, only moving home for my final honours year to make sure I did well.
2) The nature of being a student has shifted from my parents’ generation to my generation. My mum got paid to go to teachers’ college and she was there fulltime (like 9 to 5 fulltime, not 20 hours a week ‘fulltime’). Given the option to go to uni for 2 years and get paid to do it compared to going to uni for up to 4 years and stuff around trying to balance study, work and the rest of life, I don’t know, but I think many students would take the two year option.

Students ’employed’ to do a two year degree. I think this is a very good option. Many detractors of the higher education system seem to forget that education, from a capitalist point of view, is designed to increase the productivity of workers by increasing their skills.
University does have a great deal of wasted time, as students have to waste their time working in poorly paid jobs as a structural consequence of the organisation of the labour market.

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