Central and Eastern Europe, Opinion, Poland

Tycner: Organizing politically is not something we are used to

Veronika Pehe: Do you think there is a place for activism within academia? To what extent should political engagement be part of academia’s social role?

Marta Tycner: Absolutely. Academia is a huge part of the social world and we need to shape it in a conscious way, because it is an environment that is able to influence society and politics. But this is something that is not happening in Poland at the moment. There is this general conviction that academia should ‘adjust’ to the current political agenda, or even worse, to market requirements: be economically effective, produce staff for the labour market, etc. It is not seen as an autonomous body which has the power to co-create the social and economic world. Polish politics in general is dominated by the spirit of technocracy, and so are universities. University authorities or student councils all work as bureaucratic structures. The old feudal system, which has its own traditions and history, and which people are proud of, is sometimes criticised, but the most common solution is to replace it with efficiency-oriented management. This mix of feudalism and technocracy is deadly for academia as an independent, self-conscious, and powerful political actor. We need more democracy, more participation, more transparency within academia, so that we can democratically participate in social and political life.

You are partially based at a university in the United Kingdom. Has the experience of working abroad shaped your political opinions? Did it give you a new perspective on the situation in Poland?

Of course – there are several things. First of all, political engagement. I talked to people who express views which are seen as radically left here in Poland, because the whole mainstream discourse is pushed so much towards the right. And it works also in practice: in the UK, I saw that people are not afraid to demand things. Then, I realized what it means to have elitist universities. Polish universities have become much more egalitarian than they used to be due to demographic changes, the abolishment of entrance exams, and the expansion of the higher education sector. People usually lament that, keep repeating clichés about the falling level of education, and of course propose to re-introduce entrance exams, etc. I have also some experience with the German academic system, which is even more egalitarian than the Polish one, and I can securely say that the level of research has nothing to do with the pre-selection of students. So, by limiting the access to higher education you gain only the feeling of being part of the elite, but lose thousands of young people who don’t get their chance to study. It was shocking to see that this elitist British system, which academics in Poland admire so much, is the object of constant critique and protests.

So do you think that there is more political engagement in academia in the UK in comparison to Poland?

Yes, it is my impression that there is real engagement. People are protesting every second day and organizing around different issues, like library closures or wages for laboratory staff. Last year, we had protests at Warsaw University and these were the first protests at all since 1989. The student protests were organized by “Uniwersytet Zaangażowany” (Engaged University) and we also had protests of academics under the aegis of the Crisis Committee of the Humanities. The latter protests mainly concerned the humanities, which is a special area of academia with its own problems that are neglected by mainstream politics. Organizing politically is not the way we’re used to solving problems, we try to resolve them in a bureaucratic manner, through negotiating with our immediate bosses or authorities and it just doesn’t work. There is this boiling frog strategy applied on all levels: minor, apparently innocent and rational changes, which after a while make the situation of big groups unbearable. You have to stand your ground, negotiate, be aware of your rights, and I see very little of that in Polish universities.

You are a historian of late antiquity. What made you decide to actively step into politics?

It wasn’t my discipline, but rather I realized that I am employee and I work. I’m not on some creative mission, I’m part of the labour world. Sure, I also studied economics and I kept reading and being interested in the discipline. This is how I found Razem, because I kept on reading things on the Internet, and it was actually a Facebook algorithm that found them for me. It was obvious from what I had read that this was a place where I would feel good. But it’s not the expertise which is crucial, it’s the engagement as such. If you experience something, you are an expert in it. If you are a doctoral student and you are being exploited, it doesn’t matter if you are a doctoral student in philosophy or politics or electronics, this experience makes you an expert in your situation, you have a right to say you don’t agree, that you demand something, or propose changes. My own awareness of the labour problems in academia came when I finally got a very good job and escaped the world of underpaid short-term jobs and poor scholarships without any social security whatsoever, which is the normal fate of young scholars in Poland today.

Academics tend to think in an extremely neoliberal way: I manage to earn some money in academia, if you don’t, it’s because you are a bad scholar. This is just not always true.

What do you identify as the biggest problem for those who working within higher education in Poland at the moment?

The whole labour market in Poland is damaged. There are many different reasons for that. In higher education the funding is dependent on the number of students, and the number of students is lower because of the demographic collapse we are experiencing. Another issue is that if you have no money, you push people into cheaper contracts without any social security or health insurance. For instance, librarians at the National Library work on a self-employed basis, they don’t have a permanent contract. They have no rights whatsoever if anything happens. Another example – doctoral students who teach on volunteer contracts. And that’s the situation everywhere else on the labour market as well. It’s part of a systematic failure of the Polish economy at the moment. I realized this with clarity in Britain, when I saw the differences in wages. It was a huge experience for me, which made me comprehend to what extent the Polish economy is based on cheap labour, and that it concerns academics as much as any other profession. And it’s not a problem of Western wages, it’s a problem of our wages, we just earn too little here in Poland. And it is the younger generation who suffers much more than the older one. People who have been employed for some time just keep their positions, but for those who are in their twenties or thirties, the situation is completely hopeless. This is something that needs to change quickly if we want to preserve anything of the working culture in academia.

What are the specific remedies Razem are proposing to the situation?

We have recently published our program for this sector. There are three major things we tried to address. First of all, higher education and science needs to become part of the political agenda in the first place, because at the moment this sector is treated as a bureaucratic structure that has no real influence on social developments whatsoever. We now have one of the lowest levels of funding for science and higher education in Europe, about 0.8% of the GDP. The EU outlines for 2020 speak about 3%. We have so little money in the system that it just can’t work. This is part of a bigger problem, because the Polish budget in relation to GDP is the second smallest in Europe, this is the so-called “cheap state” strategy, and everything is underfinanced. Here we move to the second thing: we want to input money into academia, and this money has to go to the people, so that they have more work security and are paid more. This is something Razem has on its immediate agenda for all sectors of the labour market – the aim is to make Poland compete internationally not with cheap labour, but with knowledge. To improve the working conditions we also propose to build student housing, houses for university staff, nurseries, cantines, etc. But then finally we have the third thing: to make science and higher education subjects of the social and economic change we wish for Poland. That means to develop mechanisms which make this sector part of the revival of the Polish province. Razem wants to reindustrialise the country, so that better jobs appear on the market and in parallel a new model of professional higher education must be developed. We must also strengthen local universities and make them into cultural and social centres for regional communities.

Do you see a generational split within the higher education sector? Do you think people with more secure contracts are less sympathetic to the kinds of changes you propose?

It’s difficult, because even previously, in the 1990s, the situation was not rosy. For example, the wages were always very low. Members of the older generation still feel that even if they have a permanent position, they should get paid more. It’s difficult for them to understand that somebody who can travel abroad and secure different fellowships can have a problem with this lack of security. Also, even though they themselves don’t lack security, they are convinced that giving it to the younger generation means that the quality of research will drop. Which is of course not true, there are much better ways to secure quality of research than make people live in constant fear for their future. So I don’t see immediate solidarity among the two groups and generally, solidarity in academia is low. This was also the case with the recent student protests. The biggest student demonstration had 300 or 400 people, which is not bad, but the usual reaction was that the students should just work harder, what are they demanding? The key problem I see is that academics tend to think in an extremely neoliberal way: I manage to earn some money in academia, if you don’t, it’s because you are a bad scholar. This is just not always true. There are systemic problems in the way academia is organized and no sense of different levels of authority forming a community within the university. Academic management are trying to force academic staff and students to do what the government asks. But I think maybe the time will come soon when the university will see itself as one body that can demand something from the outside world. Perhaps also the coming political change will facilitate it. The governing party at the moment presents itself as “enlightened”, pro-European, and open, so it’s difficult for academics to say they disagree with this. But if the conservative Law and Justice Party wins the elections, it will be actually easier to position oneself in opposition to them, so I imagine this might be a good moment to consolidate as the academic world.

It is my impression that the humanities and social sciences are often a site of progressive thinking, but not progressive action. Do you think this discrepancy can be changed?

The problem is that until recently there has been no action at all in Poland. Razem is a very mixed structure and we have people from completely different places with very different life stories. Almost nobody has any previous political experience. It’s rather the diagnosis that this movement proposes that attracts them. And it’s really amazing to see that of course you have theoretical thinking and writing and political journalism, but the crucial thing is that your experience and the experience of a salesperson from the province can be similar, and that is what unites this movement. This is what we want to do – it’s not supposed to be a party of experts. If we have people from academia – and we do, of course – it’s not because they read more, or they have better solutions, it’s because they share this experience of a damaged labour market.

If part of the diagnosis is a lack of action, how do you want to motivate people to politically engage?

I keep preaching. I don’t know if I can do more than that. This is how my engagement started. I saw people being engaged in Britain, and I saw my colleagues and discussed these issues with them. There are five people in my office, and three of us went to the protests last year. Three out of five is not a bad result of half a year of discussing these issues with them. And whole the of Razem is, as I see it now, a consolidation of small circles of people who for years discussed their situation privately or semi-privately and came to similar conclusions. And it is efficient – amazingly efficient seeing the dynamics of the party – and something is definitely changing.
Marta Tycner is a historian and research associate at the Universities of Oxford and Warsaw. She is a member of Razem and founder of the party’s Working Group on Science and Higher Education.


Veronika Pehe
is a historian and contributing editor at A2larm.cz.