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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les précaires de l’enseignement supérieur sortent de l’ombre

by Charles-Antoine Arnaud

Those in insecure higher education employment come into the open

University: What consequences will the elimination of secure posts have?

Translated Saturday 25 June 2011, by Nicole Hawkesford and reviewed by Henry Crapo

By Charles-Antoine Arnaud, Isabelle Clair, Annick Kieffer, Wilfriend Rault and Christine Roland-Lévy, all members of the PéCRES group.

(1) Last year, up until the 19th of April, banners marred the beautiful facade of the École normale supérieure; the Secondary School teacher training college, in Paris. On that day, the premises were evacuated by the police after many weeks of occupation. The conflict which had, until then, been carefully hidden behind the scenes, suddenly burst into the limelight. It pitted 11 employees against the School’s management, who refused to make their contracts permanant. After years of rolling fixed-term contracts, without any prospect of a pay-rise, and running the risk of being made redundant at any time, these cleaners and kitchen staff in insecure employment protested. They demanded to be given a permanent position, went on strike, and occupied the rooms of this venerable institution 24/7, with the active support of a number of the school’s students. Following a particularly tough seven month long social movement, an agreement to end the crisis, promising a permanent contract for everyone, was finally settled on the 23rd of May.

2010 was marked by a number of similar conflicts at the universities of Strasbourg, Lyon, and Jussieu... All local outbursts reflecting the general dissatisfaction. These huge companies, supposedly full of civil servants, are becoming pressurised because from now on a quarter of their staff is condemned to a precarious employment situation; that’s nearly 50,000 people across the whole country. Secretaries and computer scientists are hired on fixed-term contracts for ten months of every year, sometimes for more than ten years running; the break of two months unpaid leave allows the universities to get round the requirement to make contracts permanent after six years of consecutive employment. Supply teachers over the age of 28 are paid cash-in-hand, or even not paid at all, since after this age the universities are not legally required to pay them a salary. Doctors without a position, chasing after contracts lasting a few months, flit from one search objective to another, and are forced to use their unemployment benefits to finance their search between contracts.

The combinations are endless; every profession, all the scientific disciplines and all the degree levels are affected. The phenomenon spares no university, however "excellent" it might be. It is particularly harsh because the lack of job security is even less controlled in the public sector than in the private sector; no interim bonus at the end of a contract, no opportunity for piecemeal work nor for paid holiday; in short, the requirement for the employer (the State) to convert fixed-term contracts into permanent contracts or statutory posts after six years, which exists on paper, has effectively become a way of avoiding the renewal of contracts after this period of time.

The questionnaire survey that we carried out over the winter of 2009-2010 shows that nearly a quarter of the 4,409 people interviewed (2) in insecure employment are living on part-time work, with a payslip every six or twelve months. Unemployment benefits are sometimes paid four months after the end of the contract. More than half of those on temporary contracts earn less than €500 per month. A third of the administrative employees earn less than €1,000. Payrises are almost non-existent; each time a new contract is begun, you start again from scratch. Part-time work is common, especially among women, and increases with age.

How have we got to this situation? The number of positions with competitive exams has dramatically decreased in the last few years, as the offers of fixed-term contracts, or temporary work have increased. Entire professions are now being outsourced to the private sector on short-term contracts, (particularly in skill levels B and C of the civil service) and the whole research sector is based on tenders for short-term contracts influenced by policy, and legally constructed to allow only temporary employment. The policy of not replacing one civil servant out of every two is well on the way to being applied, under cover, to a general overhaul of public politics. Take, for example, secretaries leaving for retirement who aren’t replaced, or only replaced on one-off occasions; one must get on without their presence or their know-how, which aren’t passed on to anyone. Progress is no longer certain, so a replacement must quickly be found; for six months - but no more, since one never knows what the budget might look like in the future.... All the services, departments and laboratories are thus threatened by chronic disorganisation and a real endangering of their functions.

These situations reveal that insecure employment is no longer used only in a temporary manner or to complete professional training; it’s becoming the new norm for long-term employment. The quality of knowledge and its transmission are at risk, as well as the appeal of higher education and research. And it’s the students who are suffering the consequences of this.

(1) Pour lʼétude des conditions de travail dans la recherche et lʼenseignement supérieur. [For the study of working conditions in research and higher education.]

(2) Recherche précarisée, recherche atomisée. Production et transmission des savoirs à lʼheure de la précarisation. Éditions Raisons dʼagir, 2011. [Insecure research, fragmented research Production and transmission of knowledge in the hour of insecurity.]

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