Students take part in a protest march against fees and cuts in the education system on November 19, 2014 in London, England. Photo: Elena Rostunova /

Students as workers in the neoliberal university

  • January 11, 2020

Education & Emancipation

Organizing workers and students are not separate tasks. Connecting the struggles of both will be crucial for building truly revolutionary power on college campuses.

The following was developed collaboratively within the Radical Education Department collective.

Students are exploited workers, and an essential force for class struggle on college campuses. It is a mistake to see student organizing and labor organizing as separate tasks. Many liberals and radicals, though, disagree.

Freddie DeBoer argues in Jacobin that if we want to organize campuses, we should focus mostly on workers rather than students — assuming a basic difference between the two: “[I]t is the organization of labor, not of students, that must be the primary focus and goal of the American left.” Many of my fellow labor organizers, too, tend to see students as sometimes helpful but optional “add-ons” for unionizing at a university. Undergrads, for their part, often struggle to build durable and effective solidarity with other workers, in part because they act like external allies — not co-workers whose exploitation cannot be separated from the exploitation of others.

There is, however, a growing sense among many students that rebelling alongside workers is crucial. Recent years have seen a surge in both student-worker fights for a higher campus-wide minimum wage and drives to unionize grad students. This tendency towards more student–worker solidarity needs to be supported and strengthened.

The point is not an academic one. On campuses, students are the vast majority. When teachers or cafeteria staff threaten to strike, administrators do not hesitate to use students as weapons to attack morale or cross picket lines. Students could be the difference between a labor struggle’s success and failure. The more we can deepen the solidarity between students and other campus workers, the more power we can build to fundamentally reshape campus life from the bottom up.

At 20 million, students represent an important sector of the US workforce — for example, their number is nearly double that of all US food-prep and -serving workers combined. The exploitation of students helps drive a US higher education industry that generates about $650 billion per year. Organizing students as workers means intensifying the power of worker struggle against the capitalist economic order.

The Decision and the Outcry

The debate over students’ class position has a long history, but recent events have raised the question about students and workers once more, giving it particular urgency.

In September 2019, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — the official arbiter of labor law in the US — stated it will rescind graduate students’ right to unionize. The reasoning: grad students are primarily students, not workers. Their relationship to a school is first and foremost educational, not economic, and so they cannot qualify for a union.

The decision by the NLRB applies to graduate unions at private universities (public ones are governed by state laws). But the decision is sparking an outcry from union organizers and others on both the liberal and radical left who say that grad students are workers because they are paid to do certain tasks — like teaching. This repeats the NLRB’s own idea that being a student and being a worker are fundamentally different things. This is far too narrow and conservative, and is tactically dangerous.

This argument against the NLRB misses a key point. The “educational” relationship of a student to a school is an economic one; educational work is exploited labor essential to generating the school’s money and campus operations.

When we overlook the exploitation of students in their education, we cut worker struggles off from a potentially powerful segment of workers. And now that a segment of grad students will be struggling without the legal protections of American labor law, it will be all the more important for them to build radical solidarity with other sections of campus.

Regardless of the NLRB’s decision, if we want to push beyond the limits of trade unions and student groups, and if we want truly radical, bottom-up class power over our campuses, we need to mobilize students alongside their fellow workers.

Students, class, work

At least on the surface of things, college students do seem to occupy a strange spot in the dominated class. Because of rising tuitions, many have to work, whether on or off campus. And as students, they write papers and reports that look similar to many other kinds of office work. But they are not paid a wage for this labor — and in fact, they themselves have to pay huge and increasing sums of money to do that labor. Moreover, many students are being trained to be either members or allies or the ruling class, like managers, CEOs, or reactionary teachers or lawyers.

How are we to understand students’ relation to class and work, then?

Students are workers-in-training

Students are trained to see education simply as a commodity for personal consumption. And yet college serves a basic task that any workplace needs: job training. Students are readied for job-specific skills like accounting or anthropology.

But the more important training is more fundamental: teaching students how to obediently and efficiently accomplish tasks. The first and last lesson of any classroom is deference to authority: sitting quietly, performing tasks diligently, and receiving criticism gratefully and silently. This kind of training in obedience and efficiency is the kind most needed for workers, regardless of the kind of job students find after college.

This training is a kind of work: students produce themselves in order to sell themselves to the highest bidder. The military and corporations know that students are their well of profit. Companies like Boeing shape curricula, accreditation standards, and departments to make the human commodities they will want to buy. Career centers literally sell direct access to college students, serving less as counselors than employment “headhunters” for the highest corporate bidders.

Students can also be workers

Students must often work for a wage on- or off-campus while taking classes. This is particularly true of grad students, who not only go to classes, study, research, and write, but also teach and grade. Working on the side is an increasing necessity in the age of ballooning student debt. That kind of labor is crucial to the functioning of a university. It keeps the academic factory churning in departments, cafeterias and bookstores.

And in fact, many corporations offer incentives for students to go back to school. UPS’s student-worker program has become notorious for offering workers classes in noisy rooms in airport terminals in exchange for extremely low wages and unrealistic promises of a degree and promotion.

Students are education workers

But students are workers in a much more direct way. Education itself is one of the most basic kinds of labor keeping campuses running.


With every assignment, test, quiz, course evaluation and attendance, students create a product that lies at the heart of the operation of a campus: data. This is especially true today in the neoliberal university, where administrators collect a glut of information about students: grades, GPAs, failure alerts about struggling students, etc.

That data is the most basic justification for a college’s bureaucracy. When deans and department chairs create curricula — dictating what has to be learned and how — they are creating the rules that regulate student information production.

The labor creating that data comes from two sets of workers: teachers and students. Students create data in their class work. Teachers manage that production, but they are also co-creators: via the lectures, syllabi, PowerPoints, etc. they give students.

Office workers and faculty gather and process that information (GPAs, statistics on learning outcomes, etc.) for admins to review. Admins impose quality control projects. They review “institutional learning outcomes” (ILOs), and discuss student work in faculty meetings. Based on that tidal wave of information, admins package together a set of rules for data production: a curriculum.

Then the college’s bureaucracy sells that packaged good to students, who pick a major, take classes, and so on. The process repeats itself. Those same curricula are, in turn, crucial for making money from corporate and military partnerships: “look how well we’re making the pencil pushers and bureaucrats you’ll need!”

The work that students do is a central pillar of the massive bureaucracy that rules it. And their work is the core of the educational product that students themselves buy. (Of course, this educational work also depends on all sorts of other workers: cafeteria staff, janitors, IT specialists …)


But educational labor hardly ends when students leave the classroom or finish homework. In the hyper-competitive job market of capitalism’s long depression, students have to pad their resumes with unpaid memberships in any number of activities: choir, sports, student government, campus event planning, service trips.

All of these activities build the brand of the school. It is no accident that every college lists student groups on its websites and features “successful” students prominently in advertising brochures and magazines.

Activities outside of class produce an image of the school as a vibrant, caring community no matter what your interests — an image used to draw more new students, more alumni donations, and more corporate and military partnerships, fueling expansion.

The same applies to many protest groups on a campus. When packaged and advertised right — in other words, when emptied of any really radical content — they become advertising gold. (See this story of student protest from Franklin & Marshall College, run in their advertising magazine.)

Internships are a particularly egregious example of this kind of “activity-work.” A student not only pays a college for an educational product they help create, but they are then lent out as free labor to corporations or non-profits in the name of “experience.”

The exploitation of graduate students is also especially clear. In their researching or editing for advisers, their own publishing and presentating, in their efforts in putting together a conference or conference panel — all this is basic for propping up the academic hierarchies that rule them: journals, conferences, professional associations, etc. These unpaid accomplishments are then touted by department chairs and deans to draw in new recruits and money in an endless jostling for program prestige.

What’s at Stake

Are students workers? The answer matters a great deal for radical organizing on a campus.

As consumers, of course, students can have an important influence on campus. This is especially true as public funding for universities is being cut and budgets are more tuition-driven. That logic, though, can cut both ways. If students are consumers first and foremost, it is easier for administrators to sell students on their reactionary policies. Cutting teacher or staff costs or building flashy new buildings to boost a school’s prestige can seem like the kinds of brand improvements any consumer would want.

But if students are primarily education workers, they can be a powerful force of class struggle on-campus.

Building more powerful campus labor struggles

Students are the overwhelming majority of people on a college campus. The operation of a campus depends on student labor — class-work, activity-work, waged work, etc. Yet that mass of people is often deeply fractured. Student organizing is too often “siloed” into an array of separate struggles with little connection to the struggles of other campus workers.

But if students are workers, there is a major, and largely untapped, opportunity to organize students’ considerable class power alongside other campus labor struggles. Organizing students as workers could mean stronger pickets, broader and more effective walk-outs and strikes and bigger and more powerful direct actions.

More importantly, organizing students as workers has the potential to radicalize that struggle itself — beyond narrower trade unionizing and student organizing.

Building bonds between students, adjuncts and various campus staff would mean pushing class struggle beyond this or that campus reform, this or that workplace grievance. That is, it would open up the prospect of challenging the very structure of the corporate university. Such solidarity could call into question some of the most basic aspects of college today — neoliberal corporatization, deadening curricula, and admin-controlled campus spending and building priorities — in a way that many other and narrower struggles cannot.

In other words, students could be a key part of the power we would need not just to reform this or that part of a campus, but for bottom-up control of a campus itself.

The most recent explosion of radical student struggles in the US — the 2009 wave of campus occupations in California — called into question the very nature of neoliberal higher ed as “a machine for producing compliant producers and consumers” (Communiqué from an Absent Future). But that explosion lacked the power and structure to durably shift class forces on its campuses. Many campus teacher unions also critique the university’s capitalist agenda, but likewise lack the organizing structure or power to fight it. Organizing undergrads as educational workers, beside other workers on campus, opens a path towards that structure and power.

None of this is to say that only worker exploitation matters. Rather, this kind of solidarity would build the power we would need to help dismantle white supremacy and gender domination on a campus: power over money, the lifeblood that flows through and sustains the capitalist, racist, misogynist forces that govern campus life.

For their part, administrators have few illusions about the class power of students. It is no coincidence that during any decently sized labor struggle on a campus, admins will do whatever they can to weaponize the student body to cross picket lines or to attack the morale of workers.

Simply put, whether or not we make students central to class struggle on college campuses, our enemy will continue to.

Students, class, ideology

Not every student can be radicalized. Universities are systems of “social triage” funneling some students into the ruling class or making them into allies of it.

With this triage system comes a saturating ideology. Students are trained in a thousand ways to treat college only as a commodity they buy to help them pursue personal success within the capitalist division of labor. The percentage of a student body that is radical or open to politicization will obviously be different depending on the campus.

So how, concretely, do we mobilize students as the workers they are?

Concrete steps

At minimum this kind of mobilizing would require a few things.

  1. Challenging the ideology that students are just individual consumers of a product without real power.
  2. Patiently building up radical, class-based student power: the ability to unite a core of students as the workers they are in a fight for more power over school work and grades, over how their money is spent on and off campus and so on.
  3. Building the kinds of campus committees that could connect the fights of exploited undergrads, grad students, teachers and other campus workers. Those connections are especially important for developing student struggle on campuses with a more reactionary student body.
    We could do this through campaigns around issues that connect those groups for radical, bottom-up power over a campus. These might include fights against private campus police, privatization of campus services like cafeterias and increased class sizes and flashy building projects; as well as fights for an increased minimum wage for any campus worker; more student, teacher and other campus worker control over campus spending and curricula, etc.
  4. Carefully studying, and drawing lessons from, those who have begun to build solidarity between students and other campus workers: more recently, UCW and USAS.

If done well, organizing students as workers would mean a key step towards seizing the machinery of campus life and placing it in the hands of those who make it operate in the first place.

Jason Koslowski

Jason Koslowski is a contingent college teacher and labor organizer in Philadelphia.

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Magazine — Issue 11