The Right to Earn a Living in a System with Free Higher Education: Part 1*


There are two human rights related here in argument, one enumerated the other not.  The first is the much debated unenumerated right to earn a living.  The other is the less publicized but recognized right to free higher education.

The current system violates both without excuse.  These violations prevent academics from earning a living in a higher education system free of tuition or public expense. 


Violation of the Right to Earn a Living
As a derivative of complex labour and social contract negotiations society has arranged it so individuals who meet professional education and membership requirements are free to exercise the right to earn a living in their chosen career.

Attorneys, accountants, physicians, pharmacists, and engineers can jointly or severally found independent practices (or service businesses, if you like) offering critical expertise to the public for a fee.

This does not describe academics.  The matter is subtle but academics cannot earn a living outside of an institution such as a university or college that possesses the legal authority to confer recognized credentials.  This restriction directly contradicts a basic maxim of rights theory: In any given society, the more individuals that can exercise their rights the better.

While not identical to the prohibition against the practice of medicine or law outside of professional authority this academic restriction is likewise secured by law as a consequence of complex social negotiation contemporaneous with that of the professions, grounded in its own education and membership requirements and having parity of effect.

Academics who meet education and union membership requirements can earn a living in higher education – as employees of an institution, not independent practitioners.  Of course unlike the professions, under the triad it is not illegal for a PhD in philosophy to call himself an academic, hang a shingle outside the walls of an accredited institution and contribute to the higher education enterprise by offering expertise to the public for a fee.

It is just illegal to do so for the one thing of any market value in the enterprise - credit – itself a purely logical construct like professional licensure.

In fact, even if its services were of much higher quality and far less expensive than the triad an academic practice in engineering or psychology could not survive without accreditation.  And were the practice expanded with a full complement of exceptional educators in other programs it would be against the law for them to refer to themselves as a university or claim to offer degrees without an act of legislation to back them.

So protected is the currency of credit, minted by those with authority to accredit.

But the matter is not settled.  The employment capacity of the triad is insufficient and the value of their labour dependent on accreditation granted to institutions, leaving academics without the ability to exercise the same right to earn a living that similarly placed professional labour routinely enjoys as a derivative of their complex investment in career and community.

This is a very curious circumstance when one acknowledges the critical role of academic qualification and reputation in securing market valued accreditation for institutional employers, not to mention the revenue from research and endowment.  Despite the fact that academics are the only essential labour in the enterprise they do not collectively or individually secure accreditation.

Under the triad this would be a misapplication of the tool, with institutions, not individuals, as formal candidates for what is essentially the licence to practice higher education.

As such accreditation is a bit like the peculiar credit a diehard sports fan lavishes on a favourite team even though its complement of athletes and coaching staff regularly moves on to competing franchises.  In terms of universities and colleges this occurs with high frequency and low pay because unlike athletes, the majority of academics are not employed full time and do not yet appreciate the value of their labour, defined as it is by institutions, governments and unions.

To be clear this legal feature of the triad does not prevent opening an independent academic practice, only earning a living from it.  Be it institution or individual, advantage in the higher education market clearly goes to those with accreditation.

Fortunately unlike competitive sports higher education does not require teams with rotating rosters, at least not of the curious sort these triad institutions represent. The professional alternative eliminates the apparent necessity for institutions and places accreditation authority in the hands of the members of an academic profession, as the licence to practice is found in the medical and legal professions.

The triad and professional paradigms for defining the key labour of higher education are workable.  But because the professional is viable and superior in terms of its ability to comply with the basic maxim that the more individuals who can exercise their rights the better, continued use of the triad, including its universities and colleges, is in violation of the right to earn a living.

Without Excuse
As far as rights go this is one of the more interesting.

It seems to capture a basic human need where ‘living’ is construed as some form of subsistence and ‘earn’ is understood as socially acceptable or lawful (used without prejudice).  After all, we are social creatures that must eat and be sheltered.  At the same time, even though its formal recognition dates as far as back the Magna Carta, the right remains a point of considerable debate.

Complying with ethical maxims is messy business.

The trouble is the sort of activity it protects and that it engages the interface among natural, political, legal and moral aspects of social construction.  Both the positive and negative interpretations of the right must contend with the fact that earning a living requires securing for one individual portion of a finite resource that is not then available to other individuals in their personal pursuit of a living.  And the negative, non-interference version of the right does not resolve this inherent conflict between the basic maxim and finite resources.

As a necessary consequence there will be restriction of this basic human right that favour one individual or group of individuals over another, determined by social formulation.  In the current context the restriction is a result of the pronounced and protracted lack of resources available for faculty positions in the universities and colleges of the triad.

The only remainder is whether this formulation is a violation with no excuse.

One very reasonable defence of the restriction is that there is no choice.  The circumstance is unavoidable since (currently) there is no actual or conceivable alternative service paradigm.

In this case the right of individuals to earn a living as academics independent of the triad is denied but there is no violation of right, only lament for an unfortunate circumstance made necessary by the lack of alternative.

Even where the professional service paradigm is not an actual but possible alternative for academic and enterprise, there might still be reason to insist on the triad: 1) It is more economical.  2) Its universities and colleges ensure a higher quality service.  3) It is the better steward for higher education.


Among its advantages over the triad this alternative is far less expensive, with better quality service and more suitable stewardship.  All things being equal – including the ability to confer recognized credentials - state and individual interests are better served by the professional service paradigm.

It is acknowledged that the paradigm has its disadvantages.  However, were these even unavoidable, its use in higher education would be on balance preferred since in this instance it better comports with the basic maxim by allowing many more academics to exercise their right to earn a living, no longer constrained by institutions with narrow, exploitive employment opportunities and a monopoly on accreditation.

* Part 2 of this post builds in the conclusion from Part 1, combining it with other work to make a case against the triad for violation of the right to free higher education.   Also with relevant distinctions and for good reason perhaps with more persuasion, the same reasoning can be used with the alternative cooperative service paradigm.

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