Silencing Precarity in Greek Academia

Τhere is a persistent silencing of precarity in Greek academia. This complicates the development of meaningful forms of resistance as any discussion of precarity often appears as an act of betrayal against the public character of the Greek University.

State-funded universities in Greece seem to be floating like an island in the perilous waters of global neoliberalism. Having resisted – so far – the push towards the widespread trend of neoliberal restructuring, they have managed to keep free of student fees and maintain a monopoly in higher education. The fact that degrees obtained from private universities operating inside the Greek territory are not recognised by the state, has contributed to their protected position. Similarly, tenured staff tends to enjoy a relatively privileged public servant status, which is the product of a combination of factors including struggles to resist fees and privatisation, failure to impose evaluation procedures, and informal norms preventing competitive applications. Despite significant reductions in their already low salaries, tenured academic and administrative staff have managed to sustain this status throughout the austerity waves mainly because of the constant opposition against governments’ attempts to impose a neoliberal agenda and undermine the 'public character' of the Greek University.

The struggles for the preservation of the Greek University as a public body, however, were paralleled by the multiplication and diversification of precarious forms of academic labour that mostly went unnoticed. While historically early-stage informal and unpaid teaching and research are considered as preconditions for a successful academic career, it was since the 2008 sovereign debt crisis that precarious forms of labour began to multiply and spread across disciplines. It is, indeed, known that high-profiled institutions operating in advanced neoliberal ecologies have witnessed 'elastic' 'short-term' labour since the early 2000s. In Greece, however, the abrupt imposition of austerity reforms had its logical consequences in the regional paradigm. The discontinuation of public sector recruitment created personnel shortages, threatening the public character of Greek institutions. If it wasn’t for precarious academics, it is likely that universities in Greece would have great difficulties to survive and to continue functioning with the limited budgets allocated by the state.

These processes have led to the emergence of highly qualified academics, who enjoy none of the labour rights of their 'elected' colleagues. Employing precarious researchers, lecturers and administrative staff through temporary short-term contracts to cover on-going needs of underfunded universities, was mainly carried out by securing European Union funds. By sustaining the precarious as constantly dependent upon temporary external funding, Greek universities were able to survive the crisis. Labelling them as self-employed, the state ensured that the precarious would constantly be under the burden of seeking new funding sources in order to be present in academia, while simultaneously they will support financially the public University.

There is a latent rage amongst those working in precarious conditions in and around the Greek academia that has yet to find an outlet to be expressed productively. Although both precarious and non-precarious academics were, for the most part, vocal concerning their opposition to austerity reforms, tenured academics remained provokingly untouched by the institutionalization of precarity within universities. And that is because challenging privileges, dependencies, and the hierarchical divisions of tenured vs precarious professors, lecturers vs researchers, full-time vs precarious administrative staff, publicly employed vs sub-contracted cleaners, but also post-graduate vs undergraduate students requires a lot of painful work that no tenured staff is interested in undertaking.

Precarious academics in Greece find themselves in this vexed position to articulate a toxic public secret. At the same time, we uphold the responsibility of becoming vocal about precarity in a collective way, and of raising its question in a way that cuts across academic hierarchies. In effect – the most difficult aspect of this whole process – we find ourselves in a position to reimagine our ethics of relating by acknowledging the current economy of knowledge production: that is, by respecting academics’ individual concerns for promoting one’s interests, by honouring our 'bourgeoise' interpersonal relations, by situating our status in the global paradigm of neoliberal restructuring of the welfare state and the rising inequality, and indeed by claiming an open yet state-of-the-art university that is beyond the mere demands of preserving a state-owned institution. Struggling to keep the University as a state institution at whatever cost is an extremely short-sighted strategy that reproduces labour inequality and antagonism between academics of different ages and genders. While there is a need to preserve the Greek University free of student fees, this cannot be done by silencing precarity.