Scholars are being persecuted by illiberal regimes due to their exercise of academic freedom. In a previous article, we focused on the situation of Turkish scholars signing the Declaration of Academic for Peace, who have been either expelled from their universities or in some cases even forced to emigrate or convicted.

As we welcome the work of civil society networks, such as Scholars at Risk (SAR), established to help individuals facing situations of hardships like expulsions, forced emigration and conviction, further questions should be asked about the situation of academics in general, and that of scholars at risk in particular once they leave their countries and illiberal academic systems.

While it most certainly does help in emergency circumstances, can we really say that a short-term visiting fellowship in another country does represent a happy ending for a scholar who has been expelled from her/his academic community of origin?

Once such academics are forced to emigrate from countries like Turkey or Cameroon, they enter the world of the neoliberal Western academia and are faced - just as any other scholar or young researcher trying to find their way to build an academic career in such a system - with the generalized condition (which for many become an existential condition) of precariousness. In the case of Ali Ekber Doğan, who currently has a 3-month fellowship in Italy, the academic system that he was welcomed into is far from being a paradise.

Some data about academic precariousness in Italy

In fact, according to the last investigation conducted by Associazione Italiana Dottorandi (ADI) in 2019, one out of three post-doc researchers in Italy experiences a period of unemployment before obtaining a new contract and just 6,3% of young researchers will manage to secure a tenure-track position in the future. This means that 94% of current post-docs will be expelled from the academic system at some point.

These conditions clearly have enormous repercussions over the socio-economic and emotional stability as well as life and family planning for an entire category of workers. As an example, among researchers who declared their intention to have children, 67% had to put that project on hold due to professional instability.

No surprise that personal projects which require some planning and resources as building up a family are a mirage for many Italian researchers, as Italy is the country where on average individuals leave their household of origins when they are about 30 years old.

The double vulnerability of exiled scholars

The interplay between these two dimensions of vulnerability, that is, between the condition of exile experienced by scholars expelled from their countries of origin due to the exercise of their academic freedom and the condition of vulnerability due to the precarization of academic labour in the neoliberal academia is at the core of the book At the Margins of Academia: Exile, Precariousness, and Subjectivity, by Aslı Vatansever, a Turkish researcher in sociology who also signed the Academics for Peace petition, who was then forced to emigrate to Germany and that took part to a discussion on the topic held at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in November.

Even just to talk about academic labour can be seen as a bold choice: in the opinion of the author, academics do usually prefer the feeling of belonging to a bubble of exceptionalism which is placed beyond the worldly categories that separate work from passion.

To identify (also) as a wage-labourer is often perceived by academics in this sense as degradation of one’s own self-perception of her or his special role as an intellectual within the society at large. Yet, such an attitude most certainly does not help self-awareness on the socio-emotional repercussion of living in an extremely precarious professional environment nor actual advocacy efforts to improve their working conditions.

As noted by Ervjola Selenica, who introduced the book at the event in Pisa, in her work Vatansever saw the two vulnerabilities as two sides of the same coin: in the international neoliberal academic system, emigrated academics could be seen as constituting the reserve work-force which can allow the system to survive while perpetrating unsustainable (on a socio-economic-emotional level) policies vis à vis precarious scholars.

But can their condition of double-vulnerability lead to an enhancement of agency? This is a hypothesis of the author which, using the words of José Medina, we could frame under the concept of the epistemic advantage of the oppressed.

A precious alliance

For sure, to see our academic system through the eyes of colleagues coming from other backgrounds can help us fight the normalization of unfair dynamics that affect us all.

This is not to say that Western academics who are part or attempt at becoming part of the academic system in their own countries do not engage in campaigns nor they try to join forces and to build up networks to advocate for the improvement of their – our - working conditions, though such efforts are most certainly not hegemonic.

These very days, a campaign by the above-mentioned Associazione Italiana Dottorandi (ADI) is out to put pressure on the government to recognize minimal safety nets to young researchers whose work has been negatively affected – or totally put on a break – by the pandemic.

Still, the burden of such campaigns – both in terms of the time and energy which are necessary to plan, organize and deliver them and with regards to the possible cost of exposing oneself as a critical voice to the system which one wants to become part thereto – is too often placed on the shoulders of the weakest which, in the case of a very hierarchical system as academia is, are the youngest researchers with the most precarious contracts and inadequate wages.

In the face of the overlapping of vulnerabilities, hardships and concerns that characterize the precarious lives of young researchers and the even more precarious ones of scholars who have been banished from their academic communities of origins, such common advocacy effort constitutes at least one positive thing to greet.

Emigrated at-risk scholars in many cases were established academics in their countries of origins who now entered the neoliberal Western academia in conditions that are similar to those of the youngest precarious workforce. To have them joining the efforts of young researchers in advocating against precariousness, we can finally get a glimpse of an inter-generational alliance:

Such an alliance within Western academia between young precarious researchers and established tenure-track scholars for many would look like an (impossible) utopia, and where it exist is a fortunate exception, but which if established on a large-scale would be key to actually build a fairer system for everyone. An alliance that one could expect to come naturally in an environment that is self-perceived as a supernatural dimension of excellence and exceptionalism where everyone supposedly works for the progress of humanity.

Cover photo by Thomas Leuthard, Tōkyō #6, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, (CC) 2014