Education as Precarity Management

Education as Precarity Management

Leya Mathew

Leya Mathew

Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Sciences

Cell Junctions
The first time I requested Ms M for permission to observe her fourth year undergraduate class, at the college where I am conducting an ethnographic research project, she told me that her class was on a ‘mass bunk’. They were preparing for the university entrance exams for admissions to the Master’s programme. Only a handful of the 80 student class would show up. New to the notion of mass bunk, I showed up anyway. But she was right. The large lecture hall was nearly empty. What was even more surprising was that students were not taking the exam to actually enrol in the Masters’ programme. Their rank on the ‘merit list’ gave them a better shot at landing a decent job in a precarious job market.

There aren’t too many ‘decent’ options actually after a ‘professional’ undergraduate degree. Those who go into marketing can make up to Rs. 25,000 per month. Quality assurance, now almost exclusively female, pays up to Rs. 15,000 per month. Industry jobs in production are a 6 to 7 day work week with an 8.5 to 12 hour shift for an average of Rs. 18,000 per month. Possibilities of advancing to a well-paying position are low and arduous.

 ‘We are constantly thinking about the future’, a fourth year female student pondered as we walked around a manufacturing plant. I had accompanied the class on their ‘industry visit’ field trip. The harsh, alienating conditions of work, and relatively low pay, were evident. Students were frank, they didn’t want to work like this. The future did not seem appealing. The better option, for those who can afford to wait, is to enrol in a Master’s programme to bypass such entry level positions. Or attempt the Public Service Commission exams to get a government job. The more privileged check out Master’s programmes, typically in the US. For others, the hope is that a rank in the merit list will help negotiate a better position in a harsh job market. With the future-in-the-now overridden by uncertainty and relative precarity, students seek out the relative predictability and routinised security of further studies or exam preparation.

What does this mean for educational providers and classroom instructors? On the one hand, education has become a very lucrative business because employment precarity drives all kinds of educational businesses. At the same time, educational providers are obliged to innovate in ways that address precarity. Unfortunately, much of this innovation points to the Global North as the end of its aspirational trajectory. For instance, International Baccalaureate schooling, 4-year Liberal Arts undergraduate degrees, and the 6-year Doctor of Pharmacy programme, currently make more sense for those planning to study or work abroad. On the other hand, instructors and students have to bear the burden of innovating in actual classrooms, which at my research site involves the invention of an entirely new socio-pedagogic system and profession, which students can then inhabit. 
The responsibilities, and stakes, are high when education functions as a precarity management technique. What this means for actual classroom teaching and learning is something that deserves careful thought. When I return from my research site to Ahmedabad University, I know I am returning to colleagues and programmes that are re-vitalizing the classroom in times of precarity.
 

Author's Profile

Leya Mathew

Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Sciences

Leya Mathew is an Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences division of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University. She teaches courses on critical thinking; identity, inequality and difference; and anthropology/sociology of heritage. She is an anthropologist/sociologist of education and her current research project is an ethnographic inquiry of undergraduate professional education.  

Tags

Employment, Education


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