Call for a European network of temporary researchers

Globalisation, academic flexibility and the right to research: A call for a European network of precarious/temporary researchers and for the free circulation of knowledge.

From: Rete Nazionale Ricercatori Precari (Italy)

(via fibrecultre mailinglist)

The last few months have seen the rise of a new collective actor in Italian universities: the movement of precarious researchers.
Mobilisations and struggles of the precarious/temporary researchers have followed in the wake of the presentation to the Italian
Parliament of a law project aiming to revise the status of university teaching and research personnel. The law has been presented by the
currently ruling centre-right coalition, but has also been (covertly) sustained by moderate sectors within the centre-left parties. Its main purpose, in brief, is to abolish permanent positions at the
level of university researcher/lecturer and to replace them with fixed-term tenures (based on a four-year contract renewable only one time).
Furthermore, it advances a number of typically neo-liberal reforms including the cancellation of any distinction between full-time and part-time professors (which allows academic staff to pursue
their own private interests without this will afflict their public salary) and the strengthening of the role played by private capitals in financing the higher education system.

This (counter-) reform project couples with the one about the school system, both presented to the Italian Parliament by the Minister of Education, University and Research (led by Mrs. Moratti), which has also been fiercely contested by school teachers and pupils for its tendency to dismantle the role of public sector in the education system.
While the latter has been already approved by the Parliament, albeit contestations are still going on, the university reform is now under discussion in Italian Parliament and it is likely (unfortunately) to be approved in the coming weeks, despite a widespread and heterogeneous movement composed by all sectors of the academic
community (from precarious researchers to chancellors) that is still active in Italian universities.

Temporary researchers have thus given rise, in the last months, to a number of local committees within the framework of a National Network of Precarious Researchers (the Rete Nazionale Ricercatori Precari), communicating through a web mailing-list and periodical meetings. The movement has made claims regarding essentially:

– a critique of academic flexibility as a strategy of disciplinisation and fragmentation of public research: flexibility is used today by ruling powers within government and the academia in order to exert a firm control over emerging scientific subjectivities and to reduce them to a condition as mere research/teaching labour-force; the reassertion of the centrality of public sector and
interest within the higher education system, against the neo-liberal imperative that affirms a strategic role for the market forces in the
universities governance system; the right to independent, long-term and market-free research at university as well as in all public research institutions: a flexible job regime imposes short-term research schedules and the development of research subjects that are identified as relevant by those financing the projects, limiting the autonomy and the creativity of scholars and researchers.

While the nation-state retains a central role in the politics of research, the last two decades have also witnessed a process of increasing internationalisation in this field. This process
takes place at two levels: one level is that regarding the production of scientific knowledge; the other is that regarding the shaping of a
multi-level governance of the higher education system.

First, since the late 1980s demands for an internationalisation of research activities have been advanced in the form of an emerging academic capitalism which has profoundly transformed the way in which scholars undertake research activities: market-like behaviour, the principle of performativity and the power of management in the administration of research funds have become crucial in this regard. What has been considered by the dominant forces and elites as the challenge of the market-economy to the university system has led to greater resource concentrations and, as a result, to the development of a range of centres of excellence and corporate universities
capable of attracting these resources to the detriment of ordinary (public) universities.
These developments have produced increasingly deeper inequalities at an international scale between the more prosperous countries and regions, where allegedly high-quality universities are mostly concentrated, and those that are lagging behind.

Second, the internationalisation of the higher education system proceeds relentlessly at the level of the European Union. This process takes place, on the one hand, through the increasing
relevance of the European research projects and the emphasis laid on networking amongst research centres and university departments at a
supra-national level (cf. the periodical Framework Programmes; the Research Training Networks, the European doctorates etc.). Institutional collaboration is established among the abovementioned centres of excellence, while those that are excluded from these networks are considered as marginal or, simply, the Others.
On the other hand, the Europeanisation of the higher education system takes place through a more intense co-operation amongst national governments in the realm of higher education policies (see the
inter-governmental conferences held in Paris, Prague and Bologna since 1998 onwards). This co-operation has had particularly relevant effects on the standardisation of university degrees (i.e.
the 3+2 degree and the credit system). These developments have strongly affected learning mechanisms in European universities, forcing university students to improve their productivity
and to conform their personal attitudes and values to an increasingly competitive environment.

Such an internationalisation of the politics of research has thus consisted in a process of globalisation from above in which ruling actors and institutions have played a dominant role while the grassroots actors have remained at the margins of the process. Today, the less powerful sectors within the academia are not only excluded from the governance of the internationalisation process but are also affected by the outcomes of the process itself in terms of increasing competition, work flexibilisation and shrinkage of the research
autonomy. This urgently requires the formulation of a perspective of globalisation from below which is capable of shaping an alternative to the present scenario. This perspective calls for the formation of a post-national public space of research and cultural exchange in which internationalisation would be perceived as a process aiming to develop practices of mutual recognition and encounter amongst equals rather than strategies of competition and selectivity amongst unequally empowered actors.

The last months have seen the development of movements asserting the right to public research in many European countries. The movement of
precarious researchers in Italy and the sauvons la recherche movement in France have been the most visible in Europe, but there has been some form of mobilisation also in other European countries such as Britain and Spain. What is new and especially noteworthy in all these
mobilisations is the central role played in them by the younger generations of researchers.
However, what is still missing in such movements is the formulation of a supra-national, European perspective on the issue of scientific research. Europe appears to be viewed as a space of constrictions and limitations, a perception that can be explained in light of the developments described above, rather than as a space of self-organisation and collective mobilisation for the less powerful actors within the scholarly and academic community.

For all these reasons, we particularly feel the urgency of creating a European Network of Precarious/Temporary Researchers. A network of
this kind would be committed:
– to coordinating movements, committees and actors that are mobilising in Europe against the neo-liberalisation of the education system, and against copyright and intellectual property system;
– to developing a post-national space of action, cooperation and debate over issues related to research, education systems and access to scientific knowledge;
– to defending and asserting the rights of temporary researchers, students and, generally, of knowledge workers at European level.

The London Social Forum represents a challenging opportunity for a first exchange of experiences and contacts, from which a future meeting (in December or January) might arise in the form of a
European Forum specially dedicated to the issues of research and knowledge. We thus propose to set up a web mailing-list to debate and prepare this forum. We strongly believe, however, that the building of a post-national space of mobilisation and debate is a goal that has to be pursued now, hic et nunc, without waiting for the great event and starting instead from the day-to-day relationships that have been already established amongst individuals and groups at the European level. For this reason, we ask everybody to make these pages circulate freely amongst all those that are or might be interested in the accomplishment of such a project.

Rete Nazionale Ricercatori Precari (Italy)