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Star Academy: Hague, Jolie, and the LSE

31/05/2016 14:23 | Updated 31 May 2016

As a scholar with years of teaching experience plus research, public lectures, grants, as well as a body of academic publications to show for my years in academia, I was seriously distressed to learn about the London School of Economics appointment of Angelina Jolie and former foreign secretary William Hague as Visiting Professors in Practice to the Master's degree programme in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security.  My beef is not with either person specifically because they are incidental figures in the hyper marketing of universities in the UK today who are out trolling for students in the most unabashed manners. This sort of campaign ostensibly seeks out the PR it has already garnered from The New York Times to the Independent with neither publication pointing to the larger ethical dimension about what is going has been going in higher education since the late 1980s.

First, one must wonder what knowledge a UN figurehead, even if an Oscar-winning actor, has to impart after serving as a symbolic face to UNHCR--first as a Goodwill Ambassador (2001-2012) and more recently as a Special Envoy-- traveling the globe to various hotspots of desperation.  No doubt Jolie has seen the dearth of food and water and the horrors of violence and civil conflict as she has been the public face for women's and children's rights in recent years. Yet, one can only wonder why the UN needs her to do the talking in the first place.  Are humans really so shallow that we can only pay attention when a Hollywood face tells us of the horrors of the humanitarian crisis in Syria?  While Jolie has the riches to jet herself across the globe at a whim between films, this fact should not be used against her.  We are, however, obliged to address the paradox whereby choosing a dilettante of human rights because of her wealth and fame to speak for the downtrodden only serves as a side-show, diverting us from the very causes of this humanitarian crisis: that of Western imperialism's genocidal and continuous wars on people in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa. These public relations gimmicks are part of a larger paradigm that the United Nations and now the LSE need to rethink and that we, as advantaged subjects from the west, need to resist.

As for the appointment of William Hague, I am even more deeply puzzled. Where Angelina Jolie has merely made a series of innocuous films arguably hurting nobody directly at least, Hague's actions as a politician have been nothing less than irresponsible and uninformed, not to mentioned his treatment of women offensive. Aside from the irony of Hague teaching a course whose scope is women despite having called a former colleague a "stupid woman" and his pitiful knowledge of females in British tennis, Hague has rejected the call for prosecutions over Iraq war crimes, stifled a 1996 paedophile report,  and for someone who held ministerial responsibility for MI6, Hague has demonstrated an dismaying lack of knowledge about intelligence.  One can only wonder if the LSE appointment of both figures is nothing more than the result of Hague's hobnobbing with Jolie two years ago at a conference, "End Sexual Violence in Conflict."

But let's leave all that glitz aside and focus on the real problem here.  The UK, like the USA, is suffering from the under- and unemployment of the most highly educated minds.  It is shocking for students who pay tens of thousands of pounds towards their education when they discover that the money they have invested in their degree is going towards a hierarchical and outdated system which rewards those scholars who can afford to work for miserable sums because they either come from a wealthy background and/or have a partner who can subsidise their lives or worse, these lecturers are living in dire poverty.

UK academics are paid far less than those holding similar posts in other countries, yet the salary scales of zero-contract lecturers differ slightly from university to university and the salary stated is usually only for in-class contact hours and does not cover preparation, marking, office hours, and syllabus creation.  When people learn the paltry amounts paid to university lecturers, most everyone is shocked to learn that the part-time wages offered are not enough to survive without supplemental income, a partner earning a hefty salary, or terrific bank robbery skills.   Currently in the UK, 49% of all university lecturers are on insecure zero-hour contracts with no holiday pay, no sick pay, and zero job security.  These lecturers are living month to month with a good part of the year left unemployed.  Additionally, these lecturers are unable to purchase homes and two-thirds struggle to pay their bills.

While the UCU (University and College Union) has been pushing for universities to hire full-time teaching staff reducing the precarious situation of many lecturers, the situation is getting worse, not better.  And university graduate programs are adding to this burden by over-producing PhDs for which no jobs exist in academia and beyond.  Just during the 2014/2015 academic year alone, 18,755 PhDs were awarded in the UK.  The UK university system is built upon creating generation after generation in debt with zero accountability for ensuring that these degrees are applicable in a job market where increasingly youth is valued over expertise and knowledge, a subject that the future government must address. Currently there is a two-day strike action (25-26 May) over a proposed 1.1% pay rise for 2016-17 whereas the UCU called for a 5% increase, a quite reasonable request given that the vice-chancellor pay was raised by 6.1% last year.  The action this week also highlights the 12.6% gender pay gap in universities and the fact that 75,000 university staff are on highly casualised "atypical" academic contracts of which at least 21,636 are zero-hours contracts. (It is important to note that some universities are not listed as offering zero-hour contracts because of cynically constructed contract where one is offered three hours per year, for instance.) Many of these lecturers are earning around £12,000 for what is effectively a full-time teaching load.
What I want to know is that since we are engaging in this unspoken Exchange Programme between the Academy and academia, where is my Oscar?

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