Desperately Seeking Futurity: Precarity and the Desire(s) of Higher Education Participation

by Matthew Clark

Discourses on graduate employability have increasingly gained a prominent position in higher education (HE). Although a bemoaned topic for many and a source of melancholic longing for an educational era perceived to be bygone, graduate employability has come to be framed by successive governments as the core purpose of HE, and the guiding principle that should, following the logics of student-as-consumer, shape the students’ decision to attend university. This trend shows no sign of abatement with the recent establishment of the Office for Students (OfS) and the new regulatory framework it has proposed: graduate employability is listed as one of its four core objectives.

Such trends in higher education have, arguably, operated alongside a general hollowing out of the public sphere. Under the accumulative effects of neoliberal public ‘reform’ – the financialisation and marketisation of HE as one example of this – and austerity politics/economics in the UK, wide-spread conditions of precarity and existential vulnerability have materialized across the class-spectrum. Financial pressures have mounted, labour and housing markets have been ‘squeezed’ and a viable sense of futurity seemingly negated for young people in the process. Reflecting on this conglomeration of processes and the conditions they engender for students, my recent MA thesis research sought to ask: what are the motives behind, expectations and values of HE for those within ‘it’ in context of the sector’s increasing marketisation and financialisation? Completing interviews with 7 key staff members and ‘service providers’ in managerial/leadership roles within the university and 17 with faculty, students and staff within the School of Global Studies produced findings that, whilst personally challenging, were of little surprise considering the current order of things.

Whilst we in Global Studies have traditionally thought of ourselves as largely ‘untouched’ by employment/employability discourses – as a reflection and function of the subjects taught there and the traditionally ‘activist’ student mentality of those who enrol in them – things appear to be changing. What emerged through my research was the importance of one’s employment/employability for students. It has seemingly become axiomatic for many, a driving motivation behind and desire embedded within one’s higher education participation. It was not uncommon to hear comments such as:

I came to uni solely motivated by getting a ‘good’ job. I want and value access to the graduate job market. How instrumentalised is that eh? I mean, I wish it wasn’t that way, but when you’re paying £140 a week on rent, spending £9000 a year to be here, living precariously and having no money at the end of the week, how can I think otherwise?

 For me and my family, education is an investment, which should be paid back once I get that DREAM job after graduation. I expect and so do others, that I will come back, get a good job and pay back what I have spent to be here.

Education has always been about employment for me, well at least that’s what I believe and what I’ve been told by everyone around me – family, friends, old school teachers, university marketing, the government or whoever it is pushing that idea. That’s why I’m here.  

However, as many of my interviewees themselves identified, this orientation towards one’s studies is broadly reflective of a more general societal shift towards more precarious and burdensome modes of living, learning and working. Whilst many did not (and why should they?) bemoan such an orientation, a large number of students were critical of the ways in which fee-paying, a lack of financial support mechanisms, rising costs of living and one’s self-identified class positioning (and the security or not this afforded them) forced them to see their studies in such instrumentalist, economically inclined ways. For many who thought as such, this was often perceived to be diametrically opposed to, or, in antagonistic opposition with an educational experience perceived to be more ‘authentic’ and ‘enriching’. However, the ‘regime of employability’ loomed large even for those who could see their HE participation simply in terms of learning for the sake of learning. For many of these students, such an orientation engendered seeds of doubt and anxiety as they questioned the legitimacy of their positionality – something that sought to ‘pull’ the student towards a more instrumentalised, employment-based understanding of higher education.

Banksy, 2010 (Boston, USA)

Whilst affective longings for one’s employability and future employment (whatever that means) are understandable, a paradoxical situation has emerged. Students are working ever-increasing numbers of hours to fund their degrees – which have been found to engender a number of negative impacts for student’s pedagogical endeavours, subjective well-being and mental health – in the hope of gaining future employment, that ‘dream job’ and the ‘good life’ it promises. For many, employment has become both the means to and desired ends of one’s educational trajectory. But what does this say, or mean?

I interpret, following the perceptive insights of my informants, this to be a sad diagnostic of our times. Whilst it would be easy to explain away such motivations as a function of fee-paying, this is half the story. The punitive and disciplinary a/effects of taking on debt through HE participation – in the minds and wallets of students – have, for many, necessitated the requirement to see a future ‘return’ on one’s educational ‘investment’ along the predictable, but often difficult to raise in academic contexts, axis of one’s class positioning. However, through these long, often touching conversations with students, it became apparent that it is very much more than just seeing a ‘return’, it’s about a desire for that ‘dream job’.

If we consider what is not a ‘dream job’ things become a little clearer. Throughout my research students consistently juxtaposed their current living and/or working conditions – which they characterised as precarious, open to flux and change, insecure, unstable and deleterious for their well-being – against an imagined, desired futurity marked by an inverse of these experiential conditions. A ‘dream job’ is not precarious, insecure, unstable, nor permeated by the anxiety-inducing affective structures these conditions engender. Furthermore, it’s not, as David Graeber (2018) would call it, ‘bullshit’: it has meaning, purpose and generates a positive assessment of one’s self-worth.

In a recent survey conducted within Global Studies it was found that 45% of those students who responded were employed in zero-hour contracts in non- degree related work experience outside of university. Or, if we reflect on the fact that 44% of respondents were found to be working between 11-20 hours per week to finance their degree, with a further 17% working more than 21 hours per week, whilst only 36% of the total number of respondents qualified for First Generation Scholarships. Students are working increasingly longer hours to fund their degrees, with little security, and, primarily, as the survey found, in an industry that presents its own stresses for students, both inside and outside the classroom: hospitality.

Student desires for that ‘dream job’, which were often seen as a necessity by my informants, therefore encompass (but are not limited to) a financial remuneration in the future. These desires could be seen to reflect a wish to bridge the gap between the insecure, precarious ‘low-skilled’ labour they currently undertake and the ‘graduate-level’ form of employment they hope for in the future; a hope bore through a juxtaposition of two conditions, one experienced and one desirably imagined. Or, they could suggest something more: a general, but complete overhaul of our current societal modus operandi away from precarity and towards a more secure, stable and meaningful futurity, socially, economically and politically. Therefore, whilst student’s articulation of employment/employability discourses seem to suggest another instance of neoliberal, individual ideological reification, I suggest it is worth a deeper reading of the yearnings that underpin them. In so doing, one begins to see the desires for societal change embedded in student’s articulations of a discourse that appears to be about individual endeavour and gain.

So, what is to be done? I have little in the way of answers bar the obvious, often stated, often ignored suggestions to heavily reduce or cut tuition fees, provide greater support for students coming from a range of backgrounds (not just financially), and to continually link education with broader societal struggles, ones students can relate to and are implicated within. In so doing, we can seek to alleviate the pressures fee-paying imposes – financially, materially and economically – on students and create space(s) for self-development and learning beyond the punitive (horizon limiting) economic tribunal they are currently subjected to. One’s employment/employability should be one self-determined value among many in the higher education learning environment. That is, not one imposed through necessity, lack of security and/or a financialised higher education system that disproportionately exacerbates pre-existing socio-economic inequalities.

All of us in higher education experience neoliberalism and precarity differently, whether that be students having to think instrumentally about HE participation, or, whether that be an erosion or denial of thepossibility for a secure, well-paid faculty position for academics in a higher education institution. It is about time we begin to recognise these differences, differences organized around a single commonality, neoliberal capitalism, and form a relational understanding of the way in which neoliberalism has impacted our life-worlds both within and beyond the university. Such a recognition is the formative basis of a student/faculty/staff solidarity that seeks to organise against the insidious, tentacular workings of a system that does not have our – our being the collective ‘we’ of the university populous – best interests at heart.

For in an era where for many a sense of a viable, secure futurity has been diminished, it is natural that employability/employment discourses in HE and the evaluative frameworks and values they engender form a ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Rancière, 2004). Conditions of precarity and widespread dis-affection have delimited the possibilities for thinking otherwise. Under these conditions, student employment/employability reigns and will continue to reign hegemonic. After all, ‘hegemony, in all its forms, operates not as an illusion, but as something that builds on the very real desires [and socio-economic conditions] of the population’ (Srnicek and Williams, 2016: 64). In this case, desires shaped through the objective conditions of life and the subjective-affective aspirations compatible with and fashioned through those very same conditions – the embodied precarity and existential vulnerability that neoliberal economics engenders for young people today. That is, sadly, another trend that shows no sign of abatement, when one considers the current order of things.

Matthew Clark completed his MA in the Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex in 2018. This blog post is based on the ethnographic research completed as part of his MA thesis: ‘Affective Bio-Capitalism, Higher Education and Neoliberal Entrepreneurial Selves: A Critical Exploration of Affect, Embodiment and Precarity in (and Beyond) a Marketised and Financialised Higher Education Institution,’ winner of the 2018 Bill and Scarlett Epstein Prize for the best MA dissertation in anthropology.




Dearing, R. (1997). The Dearing Report: Report for the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education: Higher Education in the Learning Society. London: HMSO.

Graeber, D. (2018). Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. London: Penguin.

Office for Students (OfS). (2018). Securing Student Success: Regulatory Framework for Higher Education in England. Bristol: Office for Students.

Rancière, J. (2004). The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. London and New York: Continuum.

Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2016). Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso.

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