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Unstable And Insecure: Being An Academic Is A Tough Gig

Young workers in higher education face less job security and more monitoring of their work.

More apps for higher education workers to monitor their works create severe burdens. (Elisa Ventur/Unsplash)

By Oki Rahadianto Sutopo and Gregorius Ragil Wibawanto, Universitas Gadjah Mada

YOGYAKARTA, Jan 2 – Tomo and Mulan are junior and mid-career lecturers at state universities in Java and east Indonesia.

Each day, they scan their fingerprints to sign into work, where their academic performance is constantly monitored, and they are expected to do extra work for no pay.

While they are contracted employees, these elements of the casual ‘gig economy’ have become increasingly common for younger higher education employees in Indonesia, whose job performance is increasingly overseen by various online apps.

This digital based-audit culture entrenches the neo-liberalisation of Indonesia’s universities, creating new rules which change the nature of work in academia as ‘uncertain, unstable and insecure’, thus shifting into what is called ‘the gig academy’.

This gig academy treats higher education workers like minicab drivers, food delivery people and others more commonly identified with the gig economy.

Short-term contracts are just one element of this change. Lecturers employed under faculty contracts not only become a tutor for students, they’re also expected to take on extra administrative jobs, assisting research, community service, and participate as event organisers for faculty-related formal and informal events. 

Department and faculty bosses evaluate their achievements and decide whether they are ‘proper’ enough to get their contract extended. 

Young higher education workers, therefore, are forced to carry the risks of the job with limited perks or welfare protections. 

For early and mid-career workers, there is a pressure to achieve ‘job targets’. Failure to do so will reduce their chance at a pay rise, professional certification and career promotion. 

In 2022, we interviewed 15 young lecturers from public universities in Java and outside Java. 

For Tomo and Mulan, a typical week at work would have them not only supervising undergraduate students, but also performing administrative tasks. They must also submit to a regular per-semester audit and continuously update their academic ‘performance’ via apps called ‘Simaster’, ‘Sinta’ and ‘Sister’. 

This audit culture forces them into a form of obedience dictated by bureaucratic apparatuses from local to national level. 

Tomo and Mulan said  that none of these extra administrative works are paid well, since it is constructed as part of and embedded in their daily jobs. Often, they are also obliged to ‘help’ senior lecturers who are unfamiliar with digital technology, thus adding more non-paid work. 

In an arena where the old hierarchical values remain strong, it can be argued that it is the younger generation of intellectual workers who have to deal with these multiple burdens, while the older generation remains in the privileged position. 

Nevertheless, our empirical data shows young Indonesian university workers remain flexible despite the abundant administrative work and audit control. 

Some find active ways to find the ‘space of idealism’ for themselves in teaching, research and community service. 

Aya, a young female lecturer from a state university in Sumatra practises alternative curriculum in the class by inserting reading materials related to media studies, not only to keep her students updated, but also to fulfil her own passion. She does not earn more from doing this but it keeps her happy and motivated to continue her academic career.

In the field of research, Felix, a rising young lecturer from one of the biggest universities in Indonesia, told of how administrative workloads have sucked up his time. 

Yet he sticks with his principle to publish at least one journal article each year in a reputable international outlet. For him, it is important to build his ‘academic identity’ based upon scientific recognition from the global academic community, instead of being a fully obedient intellectual worker. 

In the arena of community service, Markus, a middle career lecturer from a state university in Central Java creates his own version of ‘pengabdian’ (service) through intense engagement with teacher associations at the local level.

He voluntarily gives training to high school teachers in rural areas as a way to upgrade their teaching skills not only related to relevant academic subjects but also in general. 

Similar to Aya and Felix’s stories above, Markus does not gain extra income, nonetheless, he puts confidence in the important role of teacher for building a better future generation. 

Like the gig economy, which operates under the guise of flexibility, these young higher education workers are able to straddle the app-based culture of their employers and articulate their idealist values to make their jobs more meaningful. 

Oki Rahadianto Sutopo is associate professor of sociology and director of the Youth Studies Centre, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada. Gregorius Ragil Wibawanto is sociology lecturer and researcher at the Youth Studies Centre, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada. 

Article courtesy of 360info. 

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