Who and What is the University of the 21st Century for? Breaking Through Neoliberal Agendas

Notes from the session: Session on endangered researchers and precarity in higher education. We thank all 16 participants who attended the session: the four speakers below, David Schmudde, Maria Euler, Jirka Kocian, cagladiner, Katja (K G), Sara Nur Yildiz, Eren Akin, Pascale Labourier, Wojciech, Alberto Cottica, John Coate

‘We have been dismissed and exiled, nevertheless we are free and we will sacrifice everything to be free’

Introduction by Asli Telli who begins by citing U. K Le Guin, her activism and radical thought are relevant. Critical thought and action to HE landscape now is what sci-fi is to classical novel writing.

About the diverse_precarious mailing list : Initiated on 5 March, 2020 during Open Uni Day we celebrated in Köln in the context of ongoing strikes/protests in the UK, France and Italy. 20 people of whom many are also activists in education unions, collaborating with solidarity academics for progress reforms in the Bologna system as well as the excellence clusters in Germany. Geographically based in Germany, but dealing with trans-sectional issues beyond borders.

Academic neoliberal agendas: ‘if we win in France against a neo-liberal university, we can stain the oil well beyond national borders’

By Cristina del Biaggio.
NB: Notes in 1st person follow Christina’s words.

I am a geographer, working on migrations and borders. In this moment working on migrants deaths in the Alpine region and on networks of sanctuary cities. I started late my PhD and did not only work in academia. I have as well experience in NGOs and am quite active as well on migration justice issues as an activist pleading for freedom of movement. And I do not really separate my activist experience with my academic experience. I live at the borders between the two.

I am Swiss and Italian and I am since 2017 living in France, in Grenoble.

She has been a supporter of Academics for Peace in Turkey since 2016, and organised two seminars (see links below). When in Switzerland, Cristina accumulated 24 contracts - from assistant to lecturer, 50-60%, always in an unstable precarious situation.

In France now she has a permanent position, she is basically a civil servant. From December 2019 to March 2020 strikes started in France against a law that was thought by the French government, she was feeling bad because the reason she was there was actually what made her go away from Switzerland - she was realising that France was going in the same direction.

The reality in Switzerland: few places for professors, who were ready to take on as many precarious as they could who were dependent on them. A minority of women were professors - 20% in Basel, Lausanne and in other places. Privileged situation for PhD students - good materials, equipment, research funding, great for those at the head, but generalised precarity at all the middle level. Nothing in between.

Key issues:

  • There are no intermediary permanent positions as a young doctor you can only pretend having precarious contracts

  • Recurrent problems of sexual harassment

  • The institutions perpetuate the myth that “stars professors from abroad” are much better than locals (of course, this increases the Shangai index), exclusion of Swiss researchers (formed with Swiss money…) from the permanent position

  • You are pushed to make long experiences abroad (with all the difficulties that this means when you are not 20 years old anymore)

She thought: she cannot go on, as she was working on topics that were not critical. She said to herself: either I quit academia to work in another sector or I find a position that’s permanent. When she turned 40 she found it in France, at the Univ of Grenoble.

’My actual experience in France as permanent academic in a endangered university’

France is seen abroad, but as well by the politicians in power, as having “20 years delay compared to the other countries”. This is why in the last years they tried (and partly managed) to reform the university system. Indeed, in France, universities resisted the “neoliberal sirens singing”, until recently. It is actually what brought me in France.

  • Precarity: introduction of “tenure tracks”, not anymore recruited on the base of “annual national competition” but on criteria decided by each university. This while France was still a country with a high number of personnel in intermediary by permanent position MCF = assistant professors).
    Today, in the institute where I teach, 50% of the teaching hours are given either via extra-hours or precarious.
    It is calculated that France lacks about 10000 professors (or assistant professors) to cover the needs in teaching, now occupied by precarious personnel which is paid less than the minimum wage (less than 10 EUR/hour) and when they are lucky paid every semester!!
    It has been calculated that if the trends continue as it did in the last 5-10 years, in 2030 there will be 0 MCF recruited.

  • Less and less long-term resources and more financial resources through projects via the national science fund (called ANR)

  • Privatisation (via project funds)

You have in Germany a lot of things trying to be put in place, or in France to close the gap, but it’s the absence of those things which made it more valuable - we could have used them for post-neoliberal university but unfortunately things are going in the opposite direction.

If I am fighting here and now it is because I firmly believe that if we win in France against a neo-liberal university, we can stain the oil well beyond national borders. And if, in France, we do not give in to the siren song of neoliberal universities, I am also firmly convinced that the supposed “delay” decried by some today will turn into an advance in the future. Because the discontent is also growing in other European countries, which are fighting for what we in France are losing, but fortunately we have not yet completely lost. - Cristina (source - in French)

We need safe spaces, we need to care for each other.

The Government is trying to pass a new law as quickly as possible - we have to learn a lot about what happened in Turkey. What we are going to do now when universities in France will become as others in Europe. The new law provisions to remove autonomy of HE institutions as well as knowledge workers and cut back budgets on permanent positions, turning knowledge production into one of neoliberal order, precarious, temporary and mostly based on short-term project funding (this is the actual system in Germany and Switzerland in the last decade, so it seems like these two are acting as models to other states in Europe).

Which strategy for knowledge production, knowledge transmission, critical thought in this structural liberal scenario of precarity and privatization? What I learned from you is that there are probably strategies to put into place to at least continue in another way - to do what we are asked for: thinking and producing knowledge.

Systemic inequalities and lost knowledge in higher education: ‘precarious researchers are seen increasingly instrumentally - sources to be mined, and then discarded at the end of a project’

By Rebecca Collins.

Has been at Chester for 6 years - it’s a very different type of institution than where she had been before.

The idea of expectations of mobility touched on by Cristina: there’s an expectation of mobility which drives fragmentation.

Precarity looks very differently in different types of institutions in different places. The nature of precarity at my institution is different - especially because of demographics and geographies i.e. age compared to other higher education institutions in the UK.

  1. Economic circumstances - country, but also family circumstances, where an individual comes from; relationship status: does someone have a partner? gender inequality: who is the careworker in the family? Who does the caring work at the workplace? Not just managerial styles; if you’re an academic who teaches, who is doing the majority of pastoral work?

  2. Race and ethnic identity bias : relates to accessibility of opportunities, but also the forms of knowledge created within those groups and the extent they are seen as acceptable. In the UK it’s gaining a bit of traction, but remains to be seen if it will create change.

  3. National politics driving systemic inequality -freedom of thought, freedom of speech, as well as party political values and priorities. How and why knowledge is being lost? At the university institutional level, each university has its own package of history and identity: who is seen as the right fit?

All of these intersecting demographic challenges need to be navigated, depending on who you are.

All of these inequalities contribute in different ways to ‘lost knowledge’, valorised knowledge production: whose experiences are heard and whose aren’t. Often not explicitly so.

Educational systems are across difft global north contexts driven by traditional neoliberal structures. If we’re being told increasingly that we have to show how our research contributes to improving society. But if we frame our funding calls around that, we are not theoretical enough. All these contradictions are produced.

Rebecca is concerned about early career researchers: I skipped precarity, I don’t have the lived embodied experience, but reflected on precarity experienced by others. Realised that precarious researchers are seen increasingly instrumentally - sources to be mined, and then discarded at the end of a project. We’ve long seen this approach to research participants as deeply unethical, so how long until the same view is taken of precarious researchers?

Pascale: The liberalization of our academic market - for an outsider academic is a difficult political problem. On one end, we are very critical. But on the other, our precarity is also transmitted forward for incoming researchers.

Asli: ‘Fake internalization’, ‘forced displacement’ like in Turkey, Syria, Latin America. It is indeed a dilemma because we can actually politically endanger academics.

Decolonial movements and alternative unionization efforts

By Ayse Batur.

Ayse studied in Turkey and then went to Canada to do a PhD. Wasn’t able to finish because of the 2008 crisis. Came back to Turkey to do freelancing translation and editing. Now in Germany.

As scholars or international workers, we have failed to protect our field. A lot of people from Turkey had to find new professions. This failure pushes you to make a realistic analysis of the working situations.

Even though France, UK, Switzerland are facing new neoliberal policies and reductions to the programs, they still have a lot of funding, especially Germany, whereas in places in Turkey, Italy, Greece, they depend on public funding for a lot of the research positions. Something that amazes the rest of us - is that there is a lot of money, so it’s about how it’s distributed. For example, research institutes produce research, and seminars, but they don’t become part of the academic structures.

Scholars have the opportunity to challenge the high castle - through i.e. feminism, or feminist studies. Women’s movements have pressured unis in the US to introduce gender equality, decolonialism/ postcolonialism and other categories relevant for diminishing inequality, that have affected disciplines internally.

We are in a vulnerable situation, but we also have a critical perspective from the inside.

What is the bird-eye view in order to connect the dots?

Our struggle here, in trying to produce the critical work in our field, is also connected to what is happening in our cities. I think we should try to reconnect to that.


  • try to see the connection between our practice and the movements

  • organise around labour and around our work from i.e. precarious conditions, like Cristina working as an itinerant scholar. Many Turkish colleagues who came to Germany without really understanding their contractual position. Universities have a lot of regulations putting limits to intermediary scholars i.e. how long they can work in the same institution. This is yet another level of precariousness. We need to start talking about real life conditions.


Cristina: Reacting to Ayse’s words « we have failed to protect the university » —> Actually we finished the seminar with scholars from Brazil and Turkey by saying: « We cannot probably safe the world, but we have now to care for ourselves and found safe spaces where we can continue to produce and transmit knowledge ». This is what a researcher from Brazil said to a researcher from Turkey while giving her a necklace handcrafted by a group of indigenous people in Amazonia.

Maria: I’m a first generation academic in Sweden, from a rural area. None of our parents went to university. A lot of us struggle a lot to do this next step - getting into real academic circles. A lot of us default to other kinds of work. I think the reason is the lack of guidance and our perception of academia. Those already in it know how to play the game, but for the rest of us it’s hard.

Nur: Academia is a pyramid scheme—in response to Maria—it is meant to fail the majority. let me qualify my comment: Neoliberal academic system functions like a pyramid system

Cristina: trying to find a way that you are not lost in this inegalitarian, racist, hierarchical system that is the university. On the other side, you have to know what you want. What is happening now in France is that a lot of young people say - I’m going to go through it because I think in the end I’m going to make it.

Ayse: we need to create sites of resistance, more stable structures in order to continue the struggle; labour unions are just one of them. Example: www.biraradaakademi.org in Turkey

Noemi: What about networks that are not only with academics, where civil society also joins because you need different kinds of interventions or lobbying. Examples were given (see refs below)

From Rebecca: Love Ayse’s point about not understanding social norms of the seminar room. Such a big barrier for those for whom university (whether undergrad, postgrad, research…) is a huge unknown. I remember being so scared as an undergrad that I didn’t know how to interact in supervisions (very small group teaching). Took me most of my first year to get to grips with it. There’s a bigger point here about class cultural norms and how they shape accessibility of education.

Cristina: This is not something to support, but we built a network of women and feminist geographers in France and it is really useful to exchange information, practices, references, etc. This is quite useful not to feel alone and to build resistance

Nur: Lost her job in Turkey for political reasons. Wasn’t active for family reasons, and she was busy. She’s here through Ayse. It’s important that we do see ourselves as academic labourers, rather than academics. It allows us to position ourselves differently, and to organise. I don’t have a lot of hope for Academia right now, but the only hope is through really serious organisation.

To stop accepting that exploitative labour also means to stop buying into this story about “if you go through this and are good enough you will get there”.

David: Currently in Turin, Italy, an independent researcher and freelancer. New to the continent, has a decade of experience in the US. Was involved in a labour movement in the US - labour has historically been progressive, it’s arguable how they helped marginalised groups, but they played some role in this dynamic. In the US, we rely increasingly on adjunct faculty contracts - semester to semester. This is happening when tuition costs are rising for students. It’s not sustainable for much longer.

In the Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago, we had a labour fight where the professors were also interested in working with the adjuncts for a deal. They were not unionised at the time - so they had a good incentive. We had a union vote, we lost the union vote, but what broke us was a series of mandatory meetings violating the laws. They were supposed to be neutral educators attending - they suggested strongly that if the full time faculty did not organise, they had to look for what they were most prioritising. The adjuncts could dilute the bargaining power. If the full time professors did strike for better terms, the university could pick up some classes that they wanted. It was in the uni’s best interest to negotiate with us separately and dilute the union vote.

Katja: PhD student in Bonn. Non-transparent practices of the steering committee, you can’t know how it works, who has what rights. She challenged the voting process of PhD students leadership and was completely silenced.

Rebecca: Is the centre linked to an academic department or faculty? Or is it completely independent?

Katja: …it’s independent, financed by the DFG (German Research Foundation)

Rebecca - I can see how that makes accountability for poor practice much harder to challenge. I can’t think of an easy solution…, I hope you have some support and solidarity from peer networks, if not from your fellow PhD students.

Katja: in Germany, a lot of graduate centers are clusters, or satellites that are not part of the university structure, funded for a fixed term. Example https://www.dependency.uni-bonn.de/en

Related links:

Unbundled University: Comprehensive research project on precarities and inequalities in HE. Recently had conversation with Mariya Ivencheva, who is part of the research team and interested in moving the findings further: https://unbundleduni.com/about-2/

Colleagues organizing this petition are now planning a counter-summit during the summit of Education Ministers on Bologna process in November 2020. Our contact for this counter-summit is Valeria Pinto, so we can get in touch with her for concrete advocacy pathways.

Work: Democratize, Decommodify, Remediate https://democratizingwork.org

"The world of work cannot and should not look the same after this crisis.”, UN Secretary General 18/06/2020 https://www.un.org/en/coronavirus/world-work-cannot-and-should-not-look-same-after-crisis

Two seminars organized in Grenoble (trying to make links between France, Turkey and Brazil):

2018: “Produire des savoirs en situation d’Etat d’urgence” https://www.pacte-grenoble.fr/actualites/produire-des-savoirs-en-situation-d-etat-d-urgence → see the text co-written by Gizem Sayın, Çağla Aykaç, Cristina Del Biaggio, Claske Dijkema: https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-02295382/document

2019, “Universitaires en danger - Journée de réflexion et de solidarités avec des universitaires du Brésil et de Turquie” https://www.pacte-grenoble.fr/actualites/universitaires-en-danger-journee-de-reflexion-et-de-solidarites-avec-des-universitaires-du-bresil-et

Examples of networks beyond academics:

Peace Academics in Germany - https://academicsforpeace-germany.org/

Call for Precarious International events:


Strikes around academia in different European countries:

Policy workshop for Recent Issues in HE. Academics in Solidarity is also an ally https://www.fu-berlin.de/en/sites/academicsinsolidarity/media/AiS_Policy_Workshop_Call.pdf

Dissent in European (and beyond) higher education

Audio recording of precarious experience in academia in France (and in French). Maybe can inspire some here to do it at the (at least) European level: https://universiteouverte.org/2020/04/24/portraits-de-precaires-entretiens-dessines-avec-cyril-pedrosa/

Possible Models for Decent Knowledge Work

There is Room for Everyone`s Talent, position paper by EUA and VSNU in the Netherlands https://www.vsnu.nl/recognitionandrewards/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Position-paper-Room-for-everyone’s-talent.pdf

NGAWiss meeting Leipziger model for revised permanent positions in Germany: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5c69nal0ag74ywn/NGAWiss_Netzwerktreffen_2020.zip?dl=0

Interesting point about the role of civil society in changing institutions.


Thanks again to everyone who participated, the session has deeply shaped how I think about Academia nowadays, and I feel for people in @MariaEuler’s cohort who have to struggle to understand if to try to become established professionals there, and how.

When I first spoke to Asli, it seemed that the neoliberal surge on higher education in some parts of the world is surprising: you’d expect it mostly in authoritarian states like Turkey, or Latin America, but you woudnt’t think of a country like Germany (high capital, technical expertise…). I understood that the problems are around how secretly politicised higher education is, which creates stratification - Asli mentioned that in Germany there is no Ivy League, but after an initiative around Excellence (?) only those universities were offered funding - it created a more contentious discourse than Ivy League. The State funding is decided by partisan discourse - not on scientific grounds, but based on political parties. Did I get it right @atelli @eren @ayselucie @cdb77 ? Would you want to

I’m bringing this on because it could be an important point to dissect, as with Edgeryders we are now launching a conversation about populism in Eastern Germany as part of the POPREBEL project - In Deutschland.

Possibly it can also be taken forward by participants coming in through Daniel @hires’s efforts.

So: are there things that we would like to understand better in terms of the German model, but also others, probably similar?


Thank you @noemi for this igniter here. Yes, the partisan approach in Germany is almost invisible, neatly covered through formalized structures and deep layers of bureaucracy. The state-funding as well as the federal funding goes through lines of meritocracy as well as political decisions in a way that forced internationalization (Bologna Process and excellence) is also in place, This aggravates precarity in all senses. And yes, getting in touch with POPREBEL team would be interesting: In terms of the paths opened by neoliberal strikes to right populisms, the disbelief in science and also for the work, I’d presume, they do on diaspora politics and inequalities. Plus, right populisms is within my personal research interest. Any type of decent labor work, I believe in @hires team as well in terms of the impact of the pandemic on education, would be interesting for us. Let’s try to take this forward.


As for @MariaEuler’s and many of our concerns, we think a support group would be a good initial step to reflect together. We are already considering possibilities through Decent Labor in HE network (NGAWiss) platform for Precarious International. Will hopefully be back with more news soon. Any ideas and support would be welcome, of course:)

Jesus. “Recurrent”. :frowning:

Question for everyone: from listening to you, it seemed that all academia is going precarious, except for a relatively small cadre at the top. Right? It does not matter if your uni is in a country run by an antiglobalist (Turkey) or a hyperglobalist (France), the hiring processes are the same, and so is the precarity. Am I correct?

Right on, @alberto! Turkey is actually also hyperglobalist with an Islamic and censor-machine twist- uni’s are closed down, dissenting academics are dismissed and free speech is in ruins. France is rather facing the economic surge of neoliberalism with hierarchies and elitism getting more connected to the establishment. There, the autonomy of the university as an institution is actually at stake. These all end up in precariat of the critical knowledge workers in a zero sum game. God bless the upcoming generations (assuming ours is already lost). Well, it is that bad, but at the same time, great to see the awareness finally rising for dismantling the Elephant in the Room.


@Richard is definitely someone to talk to, or even meet if you can cross paths - he’s going to be in Berlin soon I think.

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Hi @atelli

I’m sorry I was unable to attend the session on the neoliberal university. My own neoliberal university was keeping me busy! Are you based in Berlin? I was supposed to be there now but my research trip was cancelled due to COVID. If things return to ‘normal’, I’m be coming to Berlin in January for three months. Hopefully, we can meet up and talk about right-wing populism over coffee.

Best wishes


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Hello @Richard, thanks for your note. I’m based near Cologne, but do come to Berlin once every 3 months or so for meetings/workshops etc. Thus, if you happen to come in January, pls. drop me a note here. I would be happy to chat over coffee with you in Berlin. Cheers:)

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