Casual basics

These are notes about my experience working at Pearson Education, aka Edexcel, as a temp and short term contract worker. My preoccupation here is to explore neoliberalism in the work place by looking at corporate language and visual styles, and also to detail my unease with respect to working for a corporation that is one of the main agents of privatization in the education field.

Edexcel was initially formed in the mid-1990s as a restructured and rebranded version of a London area examination board. It was run by a non-profit foundation—a kind of half-way house on the path to full privatization. It was acquired by the Pearson corporation in 2005, and is more or less like Serco, G4S, Capita, etc.—the portfolio of private corporations who are or will soon run most of the ‘public’ services in the UK and elsewhere. With the British government as its cash cow, Pearson Education is expanding into the ‘low-cost’ post-secondary market and is opening private schools in Africa.

I worked at Pearson for a time during my PhD studies, and in periods when I couldn’t find work in the academic field; thus the conditions of life in academia are linked with my work as a temp. The larger context here is that the university system concentrates a reserve army of flexible, desperate and capable workers who are then deployed into a wide range of sectors. This report is made in the spirit of de-privatising my experience as a neoliberalised junior/unemployed academic. My income as a temp ranged from £8.50/hour to a pro rata of £24,000/year, which is just a bit less than my counterparts working on teaching-only contracts in universities (provided they don’t work more than their allotted hours). As a non-EU resident of the UK with a sizeable Canadian student loan, it was either work as a temp or live in a cardboard box. I suppose temping certainly gets worse than Pearson, though such a sentiment sums up the dire and widespread condition I am addressing.

Pearson presents itself as an enlightened corporation. It is one of the largest corporations in the world directed by a female CEO, Dame Marjorie Scardino. A Texan currently residing in the UK, Scardino offers a mix of quotes ranging from the idealistic “Profit is a by-product”, to the more ruthless and pragmatic “Have a good plan, execute it violently and do it today” (borrowed from General Douglas MacArthur). Scardino’s public image is based on being touchy-feely in a “I shall return” kind of way which I imagine is almost inescapable for a business woman at this present time. Pearson Education seems to exemplify a boxing-ticking respect for diversity at almost every turn, and this was reflected in its highly multi-ethnic and multi-national workforce. And of course eco-recycling-green-enviro-friendly amenities and messages were ubiquitous as one shuffled down the halls and through the resource areas of Pearson.

There was absolutely no presence of any form of organised labour. Instead we had a contemporary styled management: ‘blame-free’ working relations, anti-bullying codes, in-house massage services,  with the nebulous presence of British ‘fairness’ always in the air. The full-timers seemed to be relatively well paid and appeared to be always heading off on vacation or returning from paternity or maternity leave. As for the rest of us, we could enjoy the subsidised restaurant where a decent lunch could be had for £2.50, and a subsided Costa’s with Lattes for 90 pence, as well as free ‘machine’ coffee in the resource area. Who needs a union indeed. This big business progressiveness seemed to be carried over into ‘Neo’—a corporate social networking platform—that we were poked and prodded to use both by official emails (‘you haven’t updated your neo page’) and prompts by co-workers. It was a multi-function ‘team resource’, a way to answer your own HR queries, an employee blog, etc. The already attenuated Facebook experience is extended into the demand to ‘share’ one’s life and experience within the corporate office.

I don’t know the proportion of temp and contract employees; perhaps a quarter of the building’s workforce, which seemed to be around 3000 people. There seemed to be a whole individuated mass of temps and contractors there—fragmented and camouflaged in corporate casual outfits. And beyond the staff in the London office, Pearson Education functions through a vast army of contract workers (examiners, markers, convenors) all over England.

The Lobby

The feel of the building produced and reflected this ethical-exploitative private spirit. A co-worker once described, derisively, the aesthetic of the Pearson lobby as aping a Japanese hotel. For him that meant a largely white and empty space, with a few select pieces of silly furniture (e.g. a long padded white bench-and-bookshelf combo), oriented towards a would be check-in desk. Sounds very millienially British if you ask me. Why would the ground floor reception area look like a hotel? Such questions! The white chamber was punctuated by a few orange bursts of the Pearson livery, and some large flat screens with Pearson promo animations. After working there for even a few days the ‘Always Learning’ slogan and solid orange ‘anchor’ bars begin to saturate the inner membranes of one’s symbolic organs, not to mention the whiteness itself. The interior design of the toilets had a similar minimal aesthetic, minus the ‘learning’ slogans. The walls of the styled areas of the building were clad in white glassy tiles, with the seamless cool surfaces intensifying a sterility and ‘calmness’. Why white? There are connotations of a gallery, a showroom, slightly retail and a little bit of a ‘chill-out space’; and all this stylistic austerity is underwritten by that shortcut to good taste: the maximum means for the minimum of effects. There are certainly posher offices in central London. In fact, the interior design had to be essentially middlebrow to maintain a ‘democratic’ ethos and a broad client-base. Two decades ago such interior design severity, with a few de rigueur ‘playful’ touches, would have been overly extreme and comical for an examination board. Of course it still is, but this strangeness has been blunted through its inclusion into the current composition of the generic. It fits right in, just another part of the interior cityscape. This look has trickled down into acceptable good taste and makes for an effective assurance of adequate intelligence and good quality.

Why not describe it as an austere Hotel California. You can go but you will never really leave. I left, but there is still a lien against me. Earnings and debt feel like the same thing, in this casually indentured servitude. Sure you can leave, but what then—get a permanent job in a university? Short stays are generally encouraged. In fact, the décor itself feels like it will be checking-out imminently. The lobby is a trend space, and I can see fragments of those white glass tiles and the bench-bookshelf combo already sitting in a skip, awaiting transfer to the dump. For all the corporate serenity of those blank surfaces and golden-ratio proportions, the foyer feels impatient. It’s twitching like a temp on a closely monitored break. What will take its place? Who cares really, we know it already without even seeing it. It will be just another turn of the algorithm, another permeation of the same thing signifying excellence, accessibility, accessibility, ethical standards, etc. However I doubt they will deploy same degree of austerity in their interior design because, like a white-on-white fashion faux pas, the two different sense of this word should not be matched too closely in this current conjuncture.