No, academia does not resemble a drug gang

Do these gentlemen look like your colleagues?

UPDATE: Afonso responded to this post here.  My rebuttal is post as a comment on his blog rather than here (he seems to care more about getting clicks than I do); a direct link to my comment is here.

There’s a blog post by Alexandre Afonso (London School of Economics and Political Science) that proposes the rather odd notion that academia is a like a drug gang. The argument is based on a narrow and incomplete perspective of what drives academics that seems rooted in a simplistic worldview where everything is related only via economics and politics.  It’s a case of the blind men and the elephant.

The abstract of the post provides an accurate overview of the rest of the article: “Academic systems rely on the existence of a supply of ‘outsiders’ ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail. Drawing on data from the US, Germany and the UK, Alexandre Afonso looks at how the academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core of insiders.”

Well!  That’s not why I’m an academic, and indeed, I’m having a very hard time thinking of more than a handful of my colleagues who are well-described by Afonso’s characterization.  I became an academic because (a) I love the work and (b) it keeps me away from the pedantry and small-mindedness so prevalent in “the real world.”  I surely don’t do it for money, although our combined income allows my wife and I to not be particularly worried about our finances.  The very first sentence of Afonso’s article is at best a bald assertion and at worst a complete mischaracterization, in some parts of the world at least.  The second sentence suggests a correlation (which is elucidated in the rest of the article) – but as we (should) know, correlation does not imply causation.

The next few paragraphs of Afonso’s article give a brief overview of drug gangs.  Again, he takes a purely economic route, explaining the motivation of low-level drug gang members to work for ridiculously low earnings solely on the premise that they are betting on becoming wealthy drug lords in the long run.

I am not convinced. One can easily use google scholar to find a great deal of research literature on drug gangs.  It is apparent that there are many psychological, sociological, and cultural factors that attract people to that kind of life.  To just write it all off as “explained” with economics alone is facile and superficial; it’s like a blind man feeling the trunk of an elephant and thinking it a snake.

Then Afonso starts describing the situation in academia.  He presents accurate data for a staggering increase in the number of PhD graduates in OECD countries over the first decade of the 21st century, without mentioning at all the actual proportions or the sometimes significant background.  For instance, Slovakia increased its number of PhD graduates by a factor of nearly 4, to 2.2% of the “reference age cohort.” Sounds huge, right?  Well, since Slovakia’s population is about 5 1/2 million, Slovakia produces only about 1% of the number of PhD graduates that the US does, even accounting for the differences in graduation rates.  Suddenly not so huge any more.  None of this very relevant comparison is made by Afonso.

Afonso also completely overlooks the impact of the Bologna Process, which is an initiative intended to harmonize the various university systems scattered across the EU, the implementation of which has been ongoing since 1999.  The Bologna Process has removed many of the barriers that had been erected over the decades that prevented students from studying anywhere in the EU and have meaningful credentials in their home country at the end of it.

Finally, Afonso ignores the effects of other events – even economic ones – that occurred in the first decade of the 21st century – like, say, the global economic crisis.  Portugal and Greece, two other countries singled out by Afonso for their substantive increases, also happen to have been two countries hardest hit by the crisis.  Other countries that were hit hard by the crisis (e.g. UK, Denmark) also exceeded the OECD average on PhD outputs.  Doesn’t this effect bear closer scrutiny?  Of course it does.  Afonso just blew it.

This mortally flawed analysis leads Afonso to the sensationalistic conclusion: “So what you have is an increasing number of PhD graduates arriving every year into the market hoping to secure a permanent position as a professor and enjoying freedom and – reasonably – high salaries, a bit like the rank-and-file drug dealer  hoping to become a drug lord.”  Fortunately, his conclusion can be dismissed summarily because his analysis is so incomplete.

Afonso then decides to try to drill down into more detail.  He starts with “The developments outlined above are broad dynamics that span across almost all advanced industrial countries.”  This claim is patently false because everything he wrote to that point is horribly flawed.  Furthermore, the characterization that he has captured “broad dynamics” is laughable: he only considered economic explanations, rather than cultural, psychological, social, and technological factors, and he didn’t touch the dynamics (how these influences change over time) at all.

His analysis of the situation of academia in the US completely ignores the anti-science and anti-education lobbies there, which are substantial, nor does he consider the effect on academia of the billions of dollars that America spends on defence – more than any other country in the world.  His analysis of Germany completely ignores that country’s tumultuous recent history, including reunification and becoming probably the most important country in the EU.  His analysis of the UK ignores the impact of the development and growth of the EU on UK, which has been staggering.

So, no, academia does not resemble a drug gang.  Basically, Afonso’s article is a useless pile of half-truths and sensationalistic clickbait.  Not what one should expect from the London School of Economics.

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5 thoughts on “No, academia does not resemble a drug gang

  1. However, I would argue that Afonso’s point is that Universities are relying on a greater number of poorly paid part-timers (the runners) to do a larger part of the teaching load. With the hope of sometime landing a tenure track position. While the “leaders” at the top (tenured faculty) are the only highly paid ones and are doing a shrinking proportion of the teaching. This is backed up by his Fig 1, and our experience here at Ryerson.

    • There’s two parts to Afonso’s post: the data, and the interpretation. There’s nothing wrong with the data; and, yes, there is a growing dependence on part-timers for instruction. But to then try to leverage that into an interpretation that academia is a drug gang? That’s just stupid. And it certainly doesn’t help address the problems. Indeed, I’d wager there that there is slightly less respect for academia now than there would have been without this article, exactly because of the (poorly made) analogy between us and drug gangs. How’s that going to help anyone (except, possibly, the gangs)?

  2. At least Afonso’s is an interesting analogy that goes some way to explaining why apparently clever people allow themselves to be financially exploited when they could be earning more money elsewhere. I don’t see what yours offers, except for ‘he’s wrong’.
    Also, what does mean in an HE context “His analysis of the UK ignores the impact of the development and growth of the EU on UK, which has been staggering”. I would suggest the EU’s impact on UK academia to be ‘staggeringly’ negligible.

    • You seem to give privilege to the goal of earning more money, as if that were a sign of success or be happy. Why? Money is only a means, a tool. There are plenty of ways to be successful or happy that are entirely unrelated to earning more money.
      You say you don’t see what my post offers? Perhaps you should reread it.
      Finally, if you make the counterclaim that the EU’s impact on UK academia has been negligible, then I would expect some evidence. The UK went from dealing with more than a dozen neighbouring nation-states to a single, massive, a (relatively) coordinated system of academic institutions, including all of the cultural, technological, and yes even economic synergies that accrue. I cannot see how such a development could possibly NOT affect UK academia.

  3. Pingback: A useless pile of half-truths and sensationalistic linkbait | Alexandre Afonso

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