‘Dead University Day’ in France, existential disputes in the UK – slowly deceasing academia in Germany
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‘Dead University Day’ in France, existential disputes in the UK – slowly deceasing academia in Germany

In solidarity with our colleagues on strike in France and the UK the Network for Decent Labour in Academia (Netzwerk Gute Arbeit in der Wissenschaft, NGAWiss) partakes in the Dead University Day and will symbolically take down its website on 05 March. We appeal to all scholars and faculty to support the strike day.

On 05 March, our colleagues at French universities will go on strike with the proclamation of a ‘Dead University Day’ and stand up against the increasingly competitive organisation of their academic existences. The protests have been triggered by a law (the so-called loi de programmation pluriannuelle de la recherche) which is set to be elaborated by the government this spring. It aims at new regulations of appointment and employment as well as regular evaluations as enforcing measures. Amongst other things, options of permanent employment for non-professorial faculty (i.e. Maitre*sse de conférence and Chargé*e de recherche) are to be replaced by a tenure-track-model, while the teaching load for scholars who do not publish ‘enough’ is to be increased. A particularly scandalising effect has been produced by an article in which the Director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique called for principles of inequality and renewed Darwinism so as to push the best scholars to greatest achievements: “We are in need of an ambitious, non-egalitarian – yes, non-egalitarian -, virtuous Darwinian law that mobilises energies and encourages the most productive scholars, teams, laboratories and institutions by international standards”, Antoine Petit in Les Echos, 26.11.2019. Experts from Biology and other disciplines have been quick to point out that Petit’s presumptions are covered neither by Darwin’s theory nor by science research. A petition circulated in December and eventually signed by 15.000 researchers emphasizes that selection in the Darwinian sense does not at all refer to a “process of collective optimizing” (but rather favours those individuals that are best adjusted to the environment, usually at the cost of their group). The petition consequently stresses that academic competition – new to France in this form while already painfully experienced elsewhere – mainly rewards strategic behaviour of scholars, whereas a concentration of financial resources is proven to generate less production than their broad distribution (the text can be signed here). De facto shrinking funds are planned to be redistributed in the form of an increasing share of competitive short-term projects – with the convenient effect of veiling the budget cuts. Other contributions add that the spreading competition for prestige and resources in French academia has supported an increase in objectionable behaviour, fraud, and non-reproducible results; the consequence is a “natural selection of bad science” (quote Philipp Hunemann). The political dispute needs to be continued – nationally as much as internationally – not least because we are already experiencing in many instances that even rationally rebutted academic managers can do a lot of harm in practice.

Since 20 February already, scholars are on strike also in the UK. Bitter work disputes have been carried through already in 2018 and 2019 to prevent the transformation of guaranteed pensions into individually traded stock market funds. Estimates (even those of employers) are predicting an actual loss of pensions of between 10 and 40% – “a textbook case of the dismantling of a shared good through financialisation” (Waseem Yaqoob, blog of the London Review of Books, 16.02.2018). Despite some successes, the earlier strikes have not been able to avert the danger; currently a commission set up in order to evaluate the planned reform has become the subject of worry and dispute. Next to this ongoing problematic, it is also so-called zero hour-contracts (i.e. the employment of academics merely according to momentary university needs without guaranteed minimum working hours), work pressures, the gender pay gap and the ethnicity pay gap that are at the center of the current conflict. Up to 50.000 faculty and academics are expected to take to the picket lines over the 14 strike days until 13 March (The Guardian, Sally Weale and Laith Al-Khalaf, 20.02.2020). Colleagues in Britain envisage a breakdown of all thresholds: “This feels like a fight now for the soul of academia, of universities. And it feels (to someone of my age) like the miners’ strike, which is both encouraging and really scary” (Faculty at the University of Birmingham, e-mail exchange).

Meanwhile in France, activities are running high so as to freeze all computer keyboards on 05 March, i.e. to completely stop research (incl. publication) and teaching for a day. The Network for Decent Labour in Academia (NGAWiss) is in explicit support of these resistances (that are carried by employment groups across the spectrum) and wishes for more comparable acts and omissions also in Germany. Ever more signs indicate that the competition already implemented on various levels inflicts serious harm on the academic culture; even a survey recently issued by the conservative Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the DHV (German Association of Universities) has clearly documented massive discontent as regards work overload and a bloated project-generated bureaucracy. The particularly strong existential pressures that are being put upon young scholars impair not only scientific curiosity, creativity, independence and explorative capacities; they also yield great problems in private life (notably in family life) that colleagues in France have so far been spared.

The different national variants of academic neoliberalism appear to be themselves in competition over forcing ahead as far as (im)possible the expansion of markets and quasi-markets, a strategy that has already disastrously failed in social and economic politics. The results are strikingly similar in various countries also beyond Europe, notably in Asia and in the US, where we have been seeing intensified strike activities over the past years: precarity, work overload, competitive bureaucracies, prestige competitions, exacerbated inequality, and a sustainable damage of research and teaching. It is high time that scholars and faculty also in Germany stand up against these developments more actively. Social Darwinism and neoliberal politics are ideas of the past, for the future we need substantial growth in solidarity so as to work for a civil common life on an intact planet.

All the more do we express our unconditional solidarity to our French and British colleagues. We know, they are fighting for us too. High time for us to join them in action.