The freelancing or gig economy seems to have washed up on the shores of academia. In a profession where ‘tenure’ was historically the ultimate goal and offered the security to study with our short term pressures on performance, does this represent the ultimate expression of changes to the world of work?
Its easy to see how this might benefit universities as they become increasingly like businesses (as opposed to businesslike). But what does it mean for the individual? The Times HES has a nice piece on one academic’s perspective on the pro’s and con’s of freelancing in academia. In one sense, the most senior academics have always been in demand and, like senior members of the medical profession, have tended to be less tied to a particular institution. It is their reputation which drives the work – even James Clerk Maxwell, a man looked up to by Einstein no less, was something of a wandering minstrel of the academic world. But for the more junior members of academia, does it provide the security required to concentrate on ground breaking research? Or with so much advanced research now being carried out by teams allow projects to be run in a flexible way with a core team supplemented by specialists brought in at the right moment.
Its would be easy to write off the development as another example of the erosion of employment rights or the increasingly precarious nature of work in general, but it doesn’t appear to be quite as straightforward as that. Freelancing could allow academics to mix work at private companies with university work, which would be a particularly useful development that would benefit both sides.
Time will tell who the winners and losers will be, but more importantly, it would be nice to think that someone will be keeping an eye on the impact of freelancing on academia in general. Will it drive greater flexibility and creativity or will it drive an increase in short term thinking that has been so destructive to many parts of the business community. One to watch.