Opinion Student Life

When Knowledge Production Becomes a Rat Race for Profit

By Sine Schei

Teaching Assistants at the Geneva Graduate Institute are demanding a fair level of pay through their Assistants’ Association, the ADA. The IHEID direction’s response is a concerning example of the place profit has gained in academia.

The director of IHEID, Marie-Laure Salles, explained to the Tribune de Geneve that the PhD remuneration at the Institute is the way it is, because 90% of the PhD students are foreign and will not stay at the Institute after completing their thesis. In other words, the presumption is that PhD students are only at the Institute to write their thesis, rather than to continue their career here.

She also highlights that the students get to pick what to write about and who to be their supervisor for their thesis. While this is indeed a good thing, it is not something that sets the IHEID PhD programme significantly apart from any other PhD programme, and certainly not something that justifies underpaying those who are enrolled in it.

With no intent to misunderstand Salles point, I will presume that the emphasis here lies on the fact that the students do not stay at the Institute to work here, rather than on the fact that they are foreign. Otherwise, suggesting that poor labor conditions can be excused on the basis that labor conditions may be even worse where the students come from, is a point barely worth engaging with. If anything, then it might be rather self-explanatory why only 10% of PhD students stay at the Institute.

What remains, in any case, is the argument that the PhD students cannot be compensated fairly, as it is not a profitable investment for the Institute over time. This represents a concerning trend, where the value of knowledge production is incorrectly equated with profit. 

On one hand, we have all chosen to take part in this semi-private system the Institute operates within. However, many of us come here for the quality of teaching and the vast opportunities in Geneva – not to see the efforts of ourselves and those around us to learn and produce knowledge turned into simple economic capital.

There are many societal consequences of equating knowledge production with profit making. This will by consequence cause the potential economic value to motivate one’s choice of research topic. Fundamental research, research conducted to produce knowledge without considering its immediate practical applications, is thus put at risk. The Covid-19 vaccine development is only one recent example of the importance of fundamental research for society at large. 

Putting questions of profit making aside, an institution aiming to solve the global challenges of the 21st century should at the very least go forward as an example and implement fair labor conditions among its own. 

In HEIDI.NEWS, Grégoire Mallard, director of research at IHEID, suggests that the low pay of PhD students at the Institute has to do with an Anglo-American model the programme is based upon. This is not commonly seen in Switzerland and, Mallard suggests, may be why the PhD pay at IHEID looks so low out of context.

I, however, do not believe that the Anglo-American model in itself is a sufficient reason to maintain a low level of pay. In fact, country-wide strikes in the United Kingdom’s University and College Union show that the Anglo-American system is far from popular elsewhere either. In the UK, too, higher pay is at the center of the demands. 

In other words, the Anglo-American model at the Institute is causing working conditions where university staff are not paid adequately. The Directorate needs to acknowledge that the impact of poor labor conditions on TAs will negatively affect the quality of education the Institute can offer to master’s students.

If the Anglo-American model causes a remuneration system that is not adequate for Swiss living, then the answer lies in a new strategy. A strategy that can put PhD remuneration back in the Swiss context, and leave the profit-making focus in academia behind for good.

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