(via FocaalBlog) In the general public, academics are often viewed as being part of an elite, who lives comfortable lives. In reality this is only true for a small minority of well-paid professors, while the situation for most academics rather ressembles those of other underpaid workers like cleaners or delivery or Uber-drivers - especially since universities are no longer run like public institutions but as corporations with managers and PR departments that all compete for being "world leading".
A recently published survey among anthropologists in Europe provides us with neat but disturbing statistics. The survey was carried out online and before Corona, between 18 June 2018 and 22 July 2018.
"Anthropology in Europe is increasingly a precarious profession", we read in the 102 page survey among members of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA), an initiative by the PrecAnthro Collective, whose members mobilised since 2016 to raise awareness about the challenges of developing an academic career in anthropology.
Increasing precarious employment conditions is a major issue here:
Much corridor talk at the 2014, 2016 and 2018 EASA conferences, and many informal chats during the online-only 2020 conference were neither about the latest ground-breaking study nor even about the latest careerbreaking scandals, but rather about the lack of career prospects, which ultimately prevents highly skilled scholars from conducting groundbreaking academic work
Permanent contracts are rare, at least until you get tenure as professor in the age of 50 or so if you are lucky. Short term contracts are the norm, instead, often shorter than six months, thus leaving anthropologists in a constant state of insecurity:
Among those who identified ‘employed in academia’ as their primary status, 44.3% had a permanent contract, and only 31.3% were on permanent and full-time contracts. This means that over two thirds of all academic anthropologists in Europe are in some form of precarious employment.
There are huge differences within Europe and - as expected from my site - Germany, one of the most inequal countries in Europe with growing poverty rates, comes out as one of the worst - or worst country to be. While 49.4% of the respoindents in the UK had permanent contracts, in Germany it was only 12.1%. The numbers for women are of course even worse than for men:
While men and women were equally represented among those on fixed-term contracts, women held a higher proportion of very short-term contracts, i.e. under six months. Women were also less likely to be in senior positions (29% of men versus 19% of women).
One consequence is that you constantly need to look for new employment opportunities. Especially early career researchers "spend an excessive amount of time at work applying for jobs". Half of all respondents spent more than one month a year applying for jobs. Less than 10% had not applied for a job in 2018.
Changing jobs means in many cases leaving your country, being constantly on the move:
Among those aged 31–35 years, only one third had not left their countries for work or education (excluding fieldwork), while a quarter had changed countries for work three or more times over the last five years.
In most countries, the salary is generally below avarage. Especially academics in East Central and South East Europe said their incomes "did not meet their needs", and that they were "unable to save or manage unexpected expenses". Among all respondents, only one in four anthropologists had money left at the end of the month.
Less than half of the respondents reported an ability to cover their living expenses solely with the wages from one full-time job. Over one fifth of EASA members also rely on parents and one tenth on family members to support them in making a living.
Temporary teaching fellows or instructors (that are growing in number) were the most vulnerable:
Of these, 68.8% said their income did not cover their needs, 80.7% had no money left at the end of the month, only 6.2% were ‘completely’ in a position to deal with an unexpected expense, and 53.1% were ‘not at all’ able to do so.
Generally, universities do not seem to be a nice place to work in, as also discrimination, harassment, unfair treatment seem to be widespread.
Very worrying: The interests of precarious anthropologists are not sufficiently represented in their academic context:
Precariously employed academics did not join unions because they felt that unions did not represent their interests as the unions were dominated by senior faculty or administrative staff. Insecurity regarding staying in academia or in the country of employment was another reason for not joining.
Membership in unions differs extremly, though. While in Scandinavia most academics are members (Denmark 96% and Finland 84%), the opposite is true for Germany (23%) or Poland and France (4% both).
The situations is probably even grimmer as the report is not representative for whole Europe. Most of the 809 EASA members who completed the questionnaire resided in the West and North of Europe – only 9.7% were residents of East Central and South East Europe.
Susana Narotzky from the University of Barcelona, Spain, sees this underrepresentation as a structural problem within the EASA. In her blog post A History of Precariousness in Spain in the FocaalBlog she writes:
In Spain, many of the part-time non-tenured teaching positions have extremely low salaries and their holders juggle a plurality of jobs that make research difficult. As a result, membership in EASA –which is fundamentally tied to participation in the biennial conference—is rarely sought.
Therefore, a large contingent of (probably) the most precarious voices, many of which are not proficient in English, is not represented in the survey. This may also explain why a large majority of respondents work in Northern institutions which have more resources than those in other countries.
Exclusion by language is also a issue that Natalia Buier from the Central European University criticizes in her post What sample, whose voice, which Europe? at the FocaalBlog. "The reality of EASA is", she writes, "that for an association that calls itself European it is a surprisingly monolingual one."
Furthermore, middle-class respondents are overrepresented in the survey. The situation of anthropologists with working class background needs more attention.
In Spain a common experience is that of the grinding of working-class lives not only through exclusion, but also through inclusion into academic spaces.
And while the authors of the report seem to imply that working-class students are at risk of being increasingly underrepresented, there is at least one level at which we are likely to see an increase of the presence of working-class students: the doctoral level. (...). In a world of increasing exploitation, (...) the stability of a four-year PhD scholarship of roughly 1000 euros offers many of working-class background the possibility of more stability than most alternatives. (...)
Increased abilities but diminished resources do not change the fact that the professional machine will probably spit out the student of working-class background at the first opportunity: but that cut out point seems to be increasingly moving towards the post-doctoral phase, where the prolonged subsistence on no or below subsistence level income requires resources that are less likely accessible to colleagues of working-class background.
So, what to do? The recommendations in the report are written in diplomatic language and seem tame and weak.
Without touching the root of the problem, the commercialization of academia, little can be done as Don Kalb from the University of Bergen writes in his post Anthropological Lives Matter, Except They Don’t at Focaal:
Academia should not be run as McKinsey would like it. Our own discipline nowadays has really no other professional rationale than helping to produce democratic, intelligent, and progressive people and societies, not just “more stuff” – research articles, students, diplomas, scholars – against lowest cost. (...)
Outdated academic structures and hierarchies, as well as actively managed neoliberal ones (Netherlands, UK), will have to change if the continent wants to respond creatively and progressively to the massive transformations that are coming to us. Anthropologists should actively make that case and show that they must be part of the creative dynamism.
There is a growing amount of scholarship on academic precarity that I might come back to later. For now check precarity in The Anthropology Newspaper.
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