On the Precariousness of Precarious Academics

Precarious academics lead a life with few prospects of developing their social biographies. Their work involves underpaid short-term teaching contracts, acquiring temporary research grants, having to organize conferences and events, and producing peer reviewed publications - all practical work responsibilities without significant impact on sustaining normalcy in their everyday life, let alone on advancing fulfilling career goals. These working conditions have resulted globally from the restructuring of university institutions, which is based on a paradigm of 'liveability' and 'market orientation'. For precarious academics, it is hard to penetrate formal institutional structures, as available spaces are still very few and universities operate on the privilege of knowledge production. Moreover, precarity unfolds through relations of dependency on 'elected' members of staff, who are often given (perhaps as a gift) impressive research records created by their precarious colleagues. Dependency is a permanent feature of academic lives and university practices, with many academics in their thirties and forties facing no option but to remain perpetually precarious.

Not only academics find themselves in conditions of precarity and dependency. During the restructuring of university institutions, administrative staff was hired with similar terms in the so-called 'research offices' or 'funding management offices' to cover all types of ongoing bureaucratic needs – often irrelevant to the projects themselves – sucking, as the outer arm of 'host institutions', funding mostly generated by precarious academics. Instead of common struggles – that is, instead of having a 'common consciousness' of their precarity in Marxist terms – the relationships between these two interconnected groups of workers (academic and bureaucratic) are characterised by increased competition, hostility and tensions, as both are trying to get privileged access to limited resources and to enhance relations of dependency with tenured staff in order to secure tenured positions once they open. Intellectual identity and a sense of pride for academic achievements render it easier for precarious academics to identify with their privileged full-time colleagues. Indeed, despite their distances in terms of working conditions and rights, the precarious and the elected staff have developed various forms of sectoral or discipline-based organising, that has so far done very little to raise the issue of precarity, even though many of them work hard on the need to preserve the 'public character' of universities.

Surviving precarity in academia involves a lot of unheroic compromise, manoeuvring, and adjusting that is often understood and treated as symptomatic and opportunistic. Precarious academics are often labelled as Projectariat – even ironically by themselves – an identity that testifies to a new regime of lower status and with less labour rights; while those who work on successive projects are often singled out and labelled as business-oriented 'project hunters', a derogative term describing lack of intellectual depth and a dubious commitment to profit making rather than pure, interest-free, independent research. Yet, to acknowledge the historical condition of precariousness in academia means for one to understand that reproducing stereotypes about the impartiality of academic research masks the materiality of precarity. Concealing precarity is mainly done by silencing precarious academics’ need to constantly seek funding in order to survive unstable working arrangements; a need that elected academics – particularly in Greece and other countries with strong relations of patronage – are free of precisely because of evaluation procedures that favour social privilege. Silencing the new modes of knowledge production in academia masks the fact that the sustainability of the public character of universities is dependent upon precarious labour.

This masking of the materiality of precarity, as opposed to the supposed immateriality of ‘pure’ research, can be stigmatising. Most precarious respond either by internalising the stigma by repeating 'I am not a real academic as I am not in a position to do pure research' like a living mantra, or by reasserting academic purity by carrying out voluntarily unpaid or low paid research or teaching, which is – interestingly enough – less stigmatising. With some notable exceptions indeed – elected colleagues who quietly help and support their precarious co-workers – the greatest part of academia either profits or completely ignores their colleagues’ condition of precarity. The challenge is how to raise issues related to precarity without falling into the trap of being accused of lack of intellectualism or being suspected of a neoliberal urge to put in question the 'public', 'open' or 'free of fees' character of university institutions. The challenge is how to be open about one’s precariousness without jeopardizing (already) fragile personal and professional relationships; without being targeted as a reactionary colleague; without losing prestige as one who is unable to cope with the pressing demands of academic life. Such dilemmas intensify the precariousness of precarious academics, and faced with them, most precarious end by silencing their experiences, frustration and needs.