A Radical Geography Community
by Stelios Gialis, Hellenic Open University / University of Georgia
“Now that we have overcome the hardship of the mountains
we need to subdue the adversities of the valleys…”
Among the various sad stories related to the ongoing crisis in Greece and its tremendous effects for the majority of the local population, there is one commonly neglected but still crucial: it is the story of the nearly 750 scholars – all PhD holders, with significant academic teaching and research credentials (as required) – that since 2009 have been evaluated and elected, in accordance with Greek law, to serve as faculty members in universities across the country. The election and appointment process, which is more or less similar to the tenure system in the US, depends on the decision of an electorate board usually consisting of 15 faculty members acting as peer reviewers for the post’s candidates. These highly qualified young people have been piled up on a ‘waiting list’ for the last three/four years with the reasoning that they ‘…cannot be appointed due to cuts in public spending and restrictions in public employees recruitment policies’. Backed up by the EU-IMF-European Central Bank troika, the government emphatically insists on this practice, despite the fact that at the same period a significant number of the Greek universities’ academic staff retired (to take advantage of pension provisions before they worsen), leaving academic posts uncovered.
The ‘waiting list’ scholars comprise close to 10% of all faculty members in the country. In the expectation of their recruitment, they have actually become ‘hostages of the academic system’. Many of them have been employed as adjunct lecturers, but the budget for such posts was also reduced to one-quarter since the crisis surfaced. Many of them, as well as other scholars, have gradually turned towards precarious or short term under-employment outside of academic institutions, or they have already left the country seeking academic (or other) posts in Northern Europe, the US, Australia, and the ‘booming’ economies of the ‘developing’ world.
Government officials and the Greek Minister of Education, though officially worried about the evolving brain-drain phenomenon, have in fact encouraged this outward mobility of both Greek scholars and other highly qualified and skilled population groups. They do so by accepting and implementing a socially-violent political agenda and the associated devaluation practices that once again transform the economies of the European South to migrant-sending labour markets. Ghosts of the past are awakened as postmodernity echoes the harsh realities of the post-war era of migrating labour from Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal.
These seemingly irrational choices of the Southern political elites can be better understood when contextualized within the current socio-economic framework: ‘precarity’, ‘risk’, and ‘insecurity’ are in fact integral factors of post-1990 capitalist societies. The increasing spatial fluidity of capital has all the more ‘freed’ employers from the constraints of typical employment. The flexibilization and informalization of work has been a common practice of all advanced societies these past few decades. Yet, the 2008 crisis dramatically reinforced these trends, putting forth an imaginary geographical dividing line between the Northern, supposedly ‘wise’, industrious, and relatively ‘prepared’ economies, and the so-called PIIGS of the South and the EU periphery (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain). Academic and research institutions could not have remained untouched by such changes – how could they?
A few figures on the current recession in Greece illuminate this argument; such has been the depth of the crisis that the rate according to which forces of knowledge and production have been destroyed is only comparable to societies at war or going through major political transformation. For instance, between 2008 and 2012 Greek nominal GDP witnessed a cumulative reduction of nearly 20% and it is expected to continue to fall in 2013 and 2014. Moreover, the successive waves of ‘structural reforms’ and cutbacks in public spending – that have stemmed from the three memoranda agreed upon by the government and the troika in order to ‘deal with the spectre of default’ – have unsurprisingly led to swelling public deficit and public debt, which is expected to return to pre-crisis levels (i.e. below 120% of the GDP) only after 2020!!!
A collapse in the labour market has been the unavoidable outcome of such austerity measures and ‘restructured’ public budgets. Greece has already overtaken Spain as the EU’s leading country in unemployment. In early 2013, the officially registered unemployment rate was 27.8% (i.e. 2.7 times higher than 2009) and reflected in more than 1.35 million unemployed. Notably, unemployment amongst the young hit 56.6%, while fewer than 30% of them are receiving any unemployment compensation. Indicative of the depth of the crisis is the fact that in 2012 ten individuals were added to the unemployment rolls every 15 minutes. These profound changes have their negative imprint upon higher education and related public expenditure.
Although Greek researchers are highly ranked among the international academic division of labour (for example, in 2012 the share of the research produced by Greek universities that contributed to the top 1% of most-cited articles was 13th in the world, above many advanced countries such as Canada and France), the public expenditure on higher education and research is one of the lowest across EU member states and has been reduced by 9.7% according to recent available data (2009-2010). Salaries of faculty members have been reduced by about 30%; the typical lecturer currently receives around 1,000 Euros per month. In addition, basic provisions such as research and teaching facilities, and conference and research-related traveling expenses are now insufficient due to slashed university budgets. For instance, subscriptions to research and journal databases have been suspended since early April 2013; libraries are simply unable to pay. At least a mild Greek winter prevented students from freezing in class during this last semester.
The agency of the non-appointed faculty members against this hard reality has been important. A group called the ‘Initiative of Non-appointed Faculty Members’ – ‘the non-lecturers’ (see http://lecture.jimdo.com/) – was formed as soon as the crisis emerged. The initiative organized and/or participated in several events, some of them jointly organised and supported by adjunct and tenured faculty members in the two metropolitan areas of Athens and Thessaloniki. It has managed to maintain a network of information exchange and action coordination that puts continuous pressure upon the government and the Ministry of Education demanding what seems to be obvious: one’s right to be appointed in a post that he/she has been elected for. Such a claim is part and parcel of a wider demand to overthrow the pro-monopolist and profit-oriented policies that dismantle Public higher education in Greece and the Southern EU.
Stelios Gialis is an economic geographer, currently working as a post-doctoral scholar with the Hellenic Open University (Greece) and the University of Georgia (USA). He’s been elected, but yet not appointed, since December 2011 to the Department of Geography, University of the Aegean, Greece.