Academic precarity is bad for everyone, but it’s even worse for scholars at risk

The risks of being an academic are compounded by the unique challenges displaced scholars face, say Lisa Herzog and Özge Yaka

November 29, 2019
homs syria bombs
Source: istock

Becoming an academic is now a risky job choice: for many people it means years of precarious employment. After their academic training, usually culminating in a hard-earned PhD, scholars can face many years of uncertainty, living from contract to contract, and sometimes even moving from country to country, with no promise of a permanent position. 

Researchers speak of a mental health “epidemic” in higher education, and while precarious employment is certainly not the only contributor to this, it is likely to be a major factor. Many young researchers have two jobs at once: doing their research during the day and at night and on weekends, writing applications for jobs, scholarships, grants, stipends and visas to enable them to participate in international meetings. 

Academic work is a calling – it requires long-term goal orientation and stamina to survive. But this endurance is undermined when everyday life is a struggle to stay in a system that offers no promises.

Such a system takes a high toll on everyone, but it is even greater for those who have been forced to flee war or political persecution in their countries. This is the situation for many academics around the world. There are not accurate data on how many academics have been displaced, but the Scholars At Risk network offers assistance to more than 300 a year, and there are several other such organisations.

But helping scholars at risk is made more difficult by the fact that the academic systems into which they arrive – including many in Western Europe – have increasingly precarious employment situations of their own. 

Despite a lot of goodwill and many warm words of welcome from university officials, the fundamental dilemma remains: how can newcomers integrate into systems marred by insufficient funding, short-termism and lack of security? 

On top of the existing challenges to working as an academic, those who have been forced to flee their country often have to learn a new language and navigate a new culture while their legal status is likely to be insecure. 

Sometimes their visa status is tied to an employment contract, which means that a failed job search or grant application could be the end of their stay in a country – and often also that of their spouse and children. Citizens of welfare states have basic safety nets for periods of unemployment, but those who come from other countries can easily fall into a void. Even a simple mistake in some bureaucratic procedure can have massive consequences. Early career researchers in general are vulnerable in many ways; for scholars at risk in non-permanent employment the vulnerabilities multiply. 

Some countries have created special scholarships for academics in this situation (including the Scholar Rescue Fund and Cara’s Fellowship Programme in the UK, PAUSE in France and the Philip Schwarz Initiative in Germany). These have been very welcome developments and we applaud the courage and abilities of those who made them possible. But these fellowships are typically limited to two years, and academics at risk need additional support to integrate into the academic environment of the host country during and especially after the fellowship. 

What is expected of the scholarship holders is almost superhuman: they need to master the language; successfully locate themselves within a foreign academic environment; become part of new disciplinary and interdisciplinary networks; learn to write funding applications; all the while maintaining a rigorous publishing schedule. All this needs to happen in already fiercely competitive academic environments. These expectations are hugely unrealistic considering the psychological state of many of those forced to leave their countries, families and lives behind. 

Additionally, the criteria of academic success varies from country to country and is likely to be different from how they have been evaluated in their home countries. For example, all the articles one has written in Arabic, Turkish or Persian, and all the courses one has developed and taught, become invisible once one has to work and compete in an English-, French- or German-speaking environment. Much to the loss of these academics, earlier achievements are often overlooked by Western universities, funding institutions and foundations.

Scholarships should be augmented by substantial mentoring programmes as well as inclusive and supportive research environments. Scholars at risk need to be introduced to academic networks and they need help with applications for permanent positions and research grants. Besides funding individual projects, other options should be considered, such as funding research centres, interdisciplinary programmes and even forming new universities (in the spirit of the New School for Social Research which houses the New University in Exile Consortium). 

We must remember that it’s not just academics in faraway countries with turbulent politics who are at risk. Academic freedoms are also under threat in the West. Climate scientists in the US, gender studies scholars in Hungary and Holocaust historians in Poland are all facing similar attempts to cripple their academic pursuits. In a world where authoritarian populism is becoming a global phenomenon, it is important to understand that protecting academic freedom for one protects it for us all.

But to truly integrate scholars at risk, we must face up to the structural problems of the academic system in the West. In many countries, neoliberal academic systems force individuals to be “entrepreneurial selves” and to compete against fellow academics who should instead be their collaborators. In many countries, the solution is to create more permanent jobs, which would give individuals the security to settle down and to focus on their research. 

The first victims of the short-termism and insecurity in the academic labour force are those who are already threatened: scholars at risk. For their sake, but also for the sake of everyone else, we must find solutions to end the precarity of young researchers.

Lisa Herzog and Özge Yaka are members of the Global Young Academy and its At-Risk Scholars Initiative.

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