notes on academic overwork and surplus value


In a presentation at DMU today Bahram Bekhradnia of the Higher Education Policy Institute argued that research inside universities was being conducted at the expense of teaching. His evidence for this was not academic staff workload data, but student study time. The latter emerges from his reading of HEFCE’s REFLEX project on flexible working plus the HEPI/Which? Student Academic Experience Survey from 2013. Student study time is lowering, therefore the value of degrees was lowering (as less labour was embedded in them), and therefore staff could refocus on research.

I remain unconvinced by this apparent correlation between variability in the average student study time and reallocation of time by academics between research and teaching. In particular, I do not think that it adequately reflects issues of workload stress and overwork in the sector, which have been highlighted by UCU, and in countless narratives about quitting higher education, and to which I referenced in my recent post about overwork. A counter-narrative is that the amount of surplus-labour being undertaken by both academics and students, and accumulated as surplus-value by institutions is growing. This is not a zero-sum game between research and teaching. Rather it is on-going and constant expansion of the research/teaching system, rooted in the search for absolute and relative surplus-value. It is the incorporation of everyday life as working time, so that academics extend their working day/days, so that they can increase their research and teaching and administrative outputs.


It is important to see this work of teaching and of research in terms of absolute and relative surplus-value.

The goal of capitalist production is not value, but the constant expansion of surplus value – the amount of value produced per unit time above and beyond that required for the workers’ reproduction. The category of surplus value not only reveals that the social surplus is indeed created by the workers, but also that the temporal determination of the surplus implies a particular logic of growth, as well as a particular form of the process of production.”

Barbara Brick and Moishe Postone (1982). Critical Pessimism and the Limits of Traditional Marxism,Theory and Society, 11(5) 636.

Inside all sectors of the economy, and now revealed inside higher education, growth is connected to ongoing processes of proletarianisation. These processes are catalysed technologically to promote consumption, production gains or to increase the rate of profit. The logic of innovation is for productivity gains, or for workplace monitoring and surveillance and management and stratification, or to catalyse the creation of value by opening up/harnessing new markets, or by stimulating innovations that further valorise capital. Thus, Christopher Newfield highlights three different types of knowledge or skill, which we might usefully relate to the expansion of capitalism through the generation of surplus-value (through the disciplining of labour and the utilisation of labour-power as a commodity).

Type C is ‘commodity skills’, which are ‘readily obtained’ and whose possessors are interchangeable. This category includes most ‘pink collar’ work that involves skills like ‘typing and a cheerful phone manner’.

Type B is ‘leveraged skills’, which require advanced education and which offer clear added value to the firm that hires such skill, and yet which are possessed by many firms. Computer programmers or network administrators are examples of essential employees who worked long and hard to acquire their knowledge, and yet who are relatively numerous. Ironically, they may have entered the field because it was large: its size may have signalled to them when they were picked a major in college–and to their stability-minded parents–something like ‘the high-tech economy will always need computer support specialists’. Yes, but not any particular computer support specialist, and not at a very high wage.

Type A consists of ‘proprietary skills’, defined as ‘the company-specific talents around which an organization builds a business’. The knowledge manager must nurture and cultivate only the skills that directly contribute to the firm’s propriety knowledge, and stamp out (or radically cheapen) the first kind of knowledge worker, whose skills are interchangeable commodities. Only the star producers–those who create proprietary knowledge–enable the firm to seek rents, and only they are to be retained, supported, cultivated, and lavishly paid.

In an indentured world focused on economic growth above all else, not everyone will enjoy the life-styles of those who produce proprietary knowledge. Through global labour arbitrage, businesses including universities ensure that commodity and leverage skills are outsourced/mechanised and that their costs are driven down. Conversely the hunt is always on for new knowledge to be valorised through exchange or transfer or through entrepreneurial activity, spill-overs and incubation.

In terms of teaching and research this bears some further analysis, especially related to the strands of teaching that enable proprietary skills to develop. These might emerge from the use of a teaching excellence framework as a gateway to drive data around teaching quality, learning environment and student outcomes/learning gain, which can be commodified so that new services can be exchanged. A side benefit is that these data then enable a medium-term justification for raising fees rooted in the competitive edge that can be generated from innovations in the production and circulation of education-as-a-service. This echoes the research terrain shaped around impact, which generates forms of proprietary knowledge.


Crucially, the distinctions between absolute and relative surplus value are important in engaging with the forms and content of academic labour, and an understanding of overwork (and its health-related impacts). A starting point here is a recognition that the academic working-day forms: first, the necessary labour required to enable the academic-as-labourer to re-produce her costs as wages: and second, the surplus-labour that can be materialised as profit (surpluses). In more under-developed capitalist production processes, like nascent teaching excellence processes or fee-driven contexts like that in English higher eduction, the search by universities is primarily to increase the absolute, social amounts of surplus-value that can be produced and accumulated. This happens by extending the working day, or by locating new international or lifelong markets from which to accumulate. Here the more limited returns available, plus the underdeveloped market/financial mechanisms, mean that there is less innovation that can reduce socially necessary labour time. A teaching excellence framework is situated against that, in order to generate productivity gains (and overwork).

However, competitive advantage can be gained by those universities that can innovate their academic production, so that they teach/assess/research in less labour time than that which is generally socially necessary. These universities have the possibility to produce more surplus-value relative to those with which they compete, in part because of the new capability and in part through increased capacity (generated by efficiency savings). As a result, these universities can then revolutionise the relations of production through new labour relations and working conditions. Thus, we see new management methods, workload agreements, absence/attendance management policies, and so on.

In terms of teaching, which has been weakly marketised and financialised, potential crises of underconsumption and weak profit/surpluses are offset by extending the working day, so that just-in-time teaching can take place or assessment turnaround times can be met, or so that new teaching technologies can be deployed. This process of searching for absolute surplus-value generates overwork, but it also reaches limits, in terms of the length of the working day or limited academic skillsets. As a result, universities see the application of more productive technologies or techniques that restore competitive advantage and relative surplus value. The search for relative surplus value attempts to make superfluous any academic labour (teaching, assessment, scholarship, administration, research) that is unproductive.

There are clearly contradictions between the commodity, leverage and proprietary skills of academic labour for teaching and those for research, and their relation to the generation of profit/surpluses, and as a response to sector-wide competition. The result is not research at the expense of teaching. It is the movement of absolute and relative surplus-value across the terrains of teaching and research, as a response to crisis. A further contradiction is revealed between, first the university’s need to reduce the costs of the academic labour-power that drives commodity production and exchange value (the socially-necessary labour time), and second the university’s need for new, entrepreneurial and creative concrete labour of academics in teaching and research. This underpins the constant revolutionising of the forces and relations of production, and the demand for constant reskilling and overwork. As Meyerhoff et al. Note, these contradictions flow throughout the university.

Even radical faculty who seek to enact transformations outside the university find themselves performing within the university as managers not only of their own labor, but of that of their students and their colleagues, designing curriculum and imposing regulations that require students be physically present and adopt a certain performative attitude during class time through the coercive metrics of attendance and participation grades.

Meyerhoff, E., Johnson, E., & Braun, B. (2011). Time and the University. ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 10(3), 493.

The ramifications of these contradictions for universities, and the compulsion to generate both absolute and relative surplus-value, emerge from David Kernohan’s Summary of HE-related implications of 2016 Budget.

The digital revolution is transforming the world of work. As working lives lengthen and jobs change, adults will need more opportunities to retrain and up-skill. This Budget announces that, for the first time, direct government support will be available to adults wishing to study at any qualification level, from basic skills right the way up to PhD. During this parliament, loans will be introduced for level 3 to level 6 training in further education, part-time second degrees in STEM, and postgraduate taught master’s courses.

To promote retraining and prepare people for the future labour market, the government will review the gaps in support for lifetime learning, including for flexible and part-time study. The government will bring together information about the wages of graduates of different courses and the financial support available across further and higher education to ensure that people can make informed decisions about the right courses for them.

The government will continue to free up student number controls for alternative providers predominantly offering degree level courses for the 2017-18 academic year. The best providers can also grow their student places further through the performance pool.

Here is the investment in human capital that drives personal, debt-fuelled investment in education, connected to data-driven marketisation and financialisation, and further privatisation. This is education as the lifelong search for absolute and then relative surplus-value, through individual and institutional competition, grounded in the market and finance.


At issue is what is to be done? One route for the generation of alternatives is to analyse the content and forms of academic labour in terms of social labour. This seeks to abolish the fetishised role of the academic whilst retaining the intellectual content of its labour at the level of society. Thus, intellectuality/intellectual activity would become a communal good, and its social development would stand against overwork.

Now if this assumption is made, the general character of labour would not be given to it only by exchange; its assumed communal character would determine participation in the products. The communal character of production would from the outset make the product into a communal, general one. The exchange initially occurring in production, which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes, would include from the beginning the individual’s participation in the communal world of products… labour would be posited as general labour prior to exchange, i.e., the exchange of products would not in any way be the medium mediating the participation of the individual in general production. Mediation of course has to take place.

Karl Marx. 1986. Grundrisse. London: Penguin, p. 108.

Joss Winn quotes Peter Hudis in his analysis of this passage, with ramifications for this discussion of absolute/relative surplus-value, and individualised overwork, in the context of alternative, communal activity that is defined socially rather than abstractly.

First, Marx acknowledges that labour would have a ‘general’ character in a new society. However, its generality would be radically different from what exists in capitalism, where discrete acts of individual labour become connected to one another (or are made general) through the act of commodity-exchange. In contrast, labour becomes general in the new society prior to the exchange of products, on the basis of the ‘the communal character of production’ itself. The community distributes the elements of production according to the individuals’ needs, instead of being governed by social forms that operate independently of their deliberation. Labour is general insofar as the community directly decides the manner and form of production. Marx is not referring here to the existence of small, isolated communities that operate in a world dominated by value-production. As noted above, Marx never adhered to the notion that socialism was possible in one country, let alone in one locale. He is pointing, instead, to a communal network of associations in which value-production has been superseded on a systemic level. Labour is therefore directly social, not indirectly social.

Second, Marx acknowledges that exchange of some sort would exist in a new society. However, exchange would be radically different from what prevails in capitalism, which is governed by the exchange of commodities. Instead of being based on exchange-values, prices, or markets, distribution would be governed by an exchange of activities that are ‘determined by communal needs and communal purposes’. The latter determines the exchange of activities, instead of being determined by the exchange of products that operate independently of it.

Third, Marx acknowledges that social mediation would exist in a new society. However, mediation would be radically different from that under capitalism, where it has an abstract character, since ‘mediation takes place through the exchange of commodities, through exchange value’ and money. In socialism, in contrast, ‘the presupposition is itself mediated, i.e., communal production, community as the basis of production, is assumed. The labour of the individual is from the outset taken as [directly] social labour’.

See Joss Winn. 2015. Communism In Practice: Directly Social Labour.

(Hudis, P. (2013) Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Leiden: Brill. pp. 110-113.)

In overcoming overwork revealing the processes for the generation of absolute and relative surplus-value through academic labour are central. This is not a trade-off between research and teaching. This is addressing a culture of overwork and illness that is being structurally imposed as teaching intensity, learning gain, teaching excellence, and which is manifested as anxiety and illness. Only in this way can a discussion of meaningful, communal alternatives situate intellectual work at the level of society, rather than fetishised and exploited academic labour at the level of the market.

One Response to notes on academic overwork and surplus value

  1. Wonderful as always. I wonder if there is any theory behind the idea of creating workplace aspirations as an extra motivational lever? We are all encouraged to achieve fellowships/chase activities that hold esteem which only serves to deliver more surplus value? The entire system also relies on the fact 10% university staff will ‘turn-over’ each year, leaving the workforce just fresh and aspirational enough? The TEF will come in as yet another lever. I’d be really interested to know if there is any writing on this.

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