We need equal sabbatical opportunity

Scholars from the Global South have vastly fewer international options than those from the Global North, says Srila Roy

October 4, 2022
Source: Alamy

The dream sabbatical is all about space. It is supposed to offer a space to dream differently, whether via a different office, institution or even country. The last of those is the most appealing and coveted. But the kind of privilege and mobility that this requires makes it possible for few – especially in the Global South.

The bulk of paid opportunities – for writing residencies and visiting positions – are available at institutions in the North. They are also mostly restricted to scholars in the North, whether by the formal criteria, the informal networks that you realistically need for a successful application or the established hierarchies that exclude Global South scholars.

Yet Northern institutions and opportunities are the ones that are most desired and institutionally rewarded. Career progression in the South includes being able to show international reach. And in the face of worsening conditions of life and work, it is not surprising that colleagues wish for their sabbaticals to take them to a stable and sheltered “elsewhere”. (In South Africa, current working conditions include many hours of disrupted power supply: rolling blackouts, known locally as “load shedding”.)

For my sabbatical during this academic year, I managed to occupy different spaces while both staying at home and being elsewhere. This is a combination that has become increasingly attractive to academics who juggle care responsibilities. I lucked out on two writing residencies – one in Johannesburg, where I live, and one in Italy. I also secured a visiting position in Australia. These were generously paid for, and I was even able to take my family with me to Australia.

But as a scholar who was trained and was previously employed in the UK, I am well integrated into Northern academic networks. Without them, I would have had little knowledge of international residencies and fellowships, and, therefore, a far lesser shot at landing one of them. Unsurprisingly, then, Global North scholars dominate in these spaces. In Australia, the two other visiting chairs, besides myself, were from Northern countries, and only three of the 12 fellows in Italy were from the Global South. Funded by a major US philanthropic foundation, the Italian month-long residency housed a disproportionate number of US-based scholars and practitioners.

Even when a Global South scholar is successful in obtaining an international opportunity, there are still many obstacles to overcome. Vicious visa regimes and border controls are consistent culprits. There is increasing awareness – even outrage – in the Northern academy about how those who lack a privileged passport are shut out of key opportunities – including, ironically, ones set up in the name of “decolonisation”. Yet still, Northern universities are not sufficiently cognisant of the mobility constraints faced by Southern scholars and do not offer them specific forms of support. For instance, while my academic hosts in Australia were deeply empathetic about my visa troubles, the university’s human resource team had only one piece of advice to offer: that I hire an immigration lawyer, at my own expense. That expense – in Australian dollars – was not easy to meet for someone paid in South African rands.

Indeed, budgeting for the whole month-long Australia trip – including housing, travel, insurance for myself and my family, and exorbitant visa, not to mention the lawyer – demanded continuous and careful calculation of what would be paid out and what would, eventually, be paid in. These forms of planning, payment and waiting are common to university systems reliant on models of reimbursement. The vast differences in pay and the deteriorating value of Southern currencies are additional concerns and constraints for Southern scholars.

My Italian hosts were more proactive, directly facilitating a Schengen visa with the local consulate. In addition, the foundation pays for the travel of Global South scholars – and their partners – to Italy, as well as providing a lavish residency experience. They also covered other costs, such as visas, insurance and airport transfers.

Yet global asymmetries still affected the dynamics of our international community of scholars. Towards the end of the month, some residents decided to collectively tip the staff, but the figure they suggested, in US dollars, was well out of my reach (and would be, I imagine, for marginalised and early career scholars in the US, too). Such relatively small factors can have an outsize effect on whether Northern spaces feel hospitable to Southern scholars.

The four-month writing residency in Johannesburg was also international in its scope but had more local than international participants (no doubt the pandemic played a part in that). The Northern scholars faced place-based challenges, too – from electricity outages and water shortages to unreasonable and inefficient visa regimes. Their research topics or personal biographies were tied to Africa in ways that I did not have to demonstrate when applying to opportunities in the “placeless” North – not so much because these were formal selection requirements as because Northern academics without ties to the region are unlikely to apply for sabbatical positions in the South given the scant career benefits.

The dream sabbatical is rightly elsewhere – a dramatic change of scene, where your emails find you genuinely well, if they find you at all. But that nourishing elsewhere must be equally within the reach of scholars located in the North and in the South. As things stand, the dynamics of space, place and power shape their opportunities far too unequally.

Srila Roy is a professor in the department of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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