Translation of « Sciences en danger, revues en lutte«
Since the beginning of 2020, over a hundred academic journals, mostly French human and social sciences publications, have announced that they have “joined the struggle” or that they are “on strike”. Their editorial boards have teamed up with the ongoing social movement protesting the plans to overhaul the country’s pension system, the unemployment benefits reform of November 2019 and the proposals formulated in the reports for the upcoming law for the pluriannual programming of research known as LPPR. In its extent and its form – strikes and votes on motions in which editorial boards have abandoned their customary reserve – this is a historically unprecedented mobilization. A collective dynamic has swept the community, beyond disciplinary boundaries, schools and the working conditions of individual journals, reflecting the widespread uproar sparked by these reforms. For higher education and research, the pension reform devised by the government in its current state will lead to heightened inequalities across the board (between men and women, between permanent and short-term staff, etc.) and to impoverishment for all, civil servants, contract workers and precarious staff. The unemployment benefits reform is also expected to exacerbate the already great vulnerability of the very large numbers of precarious workers who contribute extensively to the day-to-day operations of universities and laboratories: they account for over 25% of teaching staff and far greater proportions of support staff. The LPPR research law will only make the lack of resources, of positions and of stability worse, and deepen the inequalities that have been undermining higher education and reform, amplified by two decades of massively protested “reforms”.
Manufacturing the crisis of the public service of research and of universities
For nearly thirty years, successive governments have contributed to the erosion of the welfare state, chipped away at the public sector, denounced the “privileges” earned through social struggles in the twentieth century, and weakened the redistribution principles aimed at regulating socio-economic and geographic disparities. In academia and research, the so-called Pécresse law on the liberties and responsibilities of universities of 2007 (commonly referred to as LRU) was the cornerstone of a twofold, seemingly contradictory shift: the state’s budgetary disengagement, reflecting a neoliberal approach, and the authoritarian strategic management of research by the very same state. The rationale behind the law consists in having the ostentatious (budgetary) autonomy of universities serve as a smokescreen for the deregulation of job statuses, the generalization of competition at all levels and the increased dependence of research on economic and industrial interests, ultimately threatening the actual autonomy of research. This policy has been pursued with tenacity despite the warnings and demands of the research community, leading to the creation of multiple, supposedly independent agencies for evaluation and funding, promoting a culture of “performance”, “results” and ‘excellence” while cutting back on the laboratories’ running funds to implement a targeted distribution of resources, largely defined by economic fluctuations (if not trends) as well as by preestablished hierarchies and situations. By promoting project-dependent funding, it has widened inequalities of resources between researchers and caused an immense waste of energy and public money, with countless hours lost to the evaluation or writing of projects to secure hypothetical funds – time that could have been spent on research or teaching.
To say the least, those in power have a morbid obsession for international rankings, which were introduced to promote the US/UK model of universities ran as businesses, i.e., operating with their own funds (and relying on increasingly high tuition fees), at the cost of sacrificing operating budgets and the quality of teaching. Since the LRU law, the allegedly insufficient rankings of French universities have been regularly invoked to scold researchers and pursue the liberalization of higher education and research further against their will. This has happened against a backdrop of drastic budgetary austerity: proportionally to the number of students, the higher education budget has dropped by over 10% since 2010, and despite the promises repeated by all governments since twenty years to devote 1% of GDP to public research, the budget is still stuck at 0.8% (i.e., short 6 billion euros, an amount lower than the research tax credit, a tax exemption offered to large industrial and service sector groups). As a result, researchers and academics in France are both overworked and facing degraded living and working conditions. They are placed in increasingly precarious situations for increasingly long periods of time, being hired at the age of 35 on average. Austerity policies have also led to punishing losses of income: in thirty years, permanent staff have seen their purchasing power drop by 30%, falling sharply behind the private sector, and precarious workers are faced with a great vulnerability, with short-term contracts succeeded by periods of uncertainty, and casual teaching stints currently paid below minimum wage. Everyone is increasingly evaluated according to purely quantitative criteria – number of publications, contracts secured or patents issued, with no consideration whatsoever for their actual contribution to scholarship. These rationales have encouraged the rise of “career entrepreneurs”, to the detriment of fundamental, collective and genuinely independent research.
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