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“There is not enough room for non-Western scholars at European universities”

Sija van den Beukel,
14 juni 2023 - 12:17

From constant hassles with visa applications to uncomfortable conversations about their “country of origin”. This is the daily reality for non-Western scientists. Two UvA scientists compiled a collection about it that was recently published. “We wrote it for scholars who have no experience with migration.”

For many non-Western scientists, working at European universities is not what they expected. It involves endlessly long and bureaucratic visa applications for travelers from the Global SouthThe Global South are all non-Western countries, also known as Third World countries, temporary contracts, the eternal search for external funding, and all the prejudices they face in the workplace.


Twenty-two scholars from the Global South describe these experiences in the volume entitled: Migrant Academics’ Narratives of Precarity and Resilience in Europe, published in early May. The book is available in both a hard copy for purchase and a free online (open access) version.


The volume grew out of the accumulation of knowledge, experiences, and frustrations of political sociologist Ladan Rahbari, who was born in Iran, and political scientist Olga Burlyuk from Ukraine. For example, a senior European scholar took Rahbari’s chair during a conference and asked her to move her things. Sometimes they are ignored during coffee table discussions or get-togethers because they lack a good command of the local language. The two researchers became acquainted through their experiences as non-Western scholars at European universities that both had been writing about for years.


With this anthology, Rahbari and Burlyuk want to call attention to non-Western academics. Indeed, despite the debate about diversity and inclusiveness at European universities, they believe there is still not enough room for this group. Rahbari says: “Scientists with a migrant background are more often confronted with problematic contracts, existing hierarchies, sexism, and racism. We wanted to document that in a book.”


Burlyuk and Rahbari asked colleagues within their own network to collaborate on a book and were met with a lot of enthusiasm. Burlyuk says: “The contributions were often in even before the agreed-upon deadline. People were very happy to share their stories. It shows that this struck a chord.”

Book cover

Unlike the title suggests, this is a very accessible book. Have you considered a more accessible title to reach a wider audience?

Rahbari: “Something like ‘migrant-academics tell stories?’ That would give the impression that we wrote a novel, but it is an academic book with autobiographical and auto-ethnographic stories. The book actually seeks to reveal the underlying patterns in the individual stories.”

Burlyuk: “On the contrary, we wanted to show that biographical stories can be academic but are also fun to read. And that this does not make them less academic, but rather more impactful.”


Who did you write the book for?

Rahbari: “For all scholars, including migrant academics, but especially for those who have no experience of migration from the Global South to the Global North. In fact, we want to get outside the bubble of migrant scholars sharing their stories. After all, we still don’t see enough recognition of the hassles migrants have to go through before they can work.”

Burlyuk: “We also want to reach policymakers, politicians, managers, and university administrators to make them aware of this.”


Why did you publish the book open access?

Burlyuk: “So that everyone can read it. That was a very important condition for us. We wanted to make it as easy as possible to share so that no one has an excuse not to read it.”

Rahbari: “To make the book accessible to everyone. So that students and colleagues don’t have to pay a significant amount of money to access the book.”


The book was written primarily by social scientists, political scientists, and anthropologists. Do these stories play out in other fields as well?

Rahbari: “Yes, of course. We also want to make stories from other fields visible but started in our own network. To gain someone’s trust to tell a vulnerable story, it helps if you know the person.”

Burlyuk: “Still, the book’s reception reaches far beyond our own field. And also beyond Europe - the book has already been downloaded in 105 countries worldwide. These stories are also set in North America, New Zealand, Japan, and so on.”

“Many people read the book in one sitting”

How are people reacting to the book? Can we already start working on solutions?

Rahbari: “These stories are not new so we should be over that shock by now, but obviously we are not there yet. Even when it comes to racism, some people are still confused or deny that it occurs in academia. There is still a lot of work to do there. The fact that people are shocked by this is a good example of amnesia and denial of the systematic nature of racism. The book uses stories to shed light on this, but it is too early to judge reactions.”

Burlyuk: “As Ladan said about the reception of the book, we can’t draw any conclusions yet because it’s only been out for a few weeks. But many people have already told us that they read the book in one sitting, often intending to read just one story and ending up staying up all night reading it. We now see patterns in some things that Ladan and I first thought were isolated incidents. You can also see this in the individual stories in the book since the same themes recur in different ways. Only the names, locations, and days change. That is why I would recommend that everyone read the whole book. Everyday discrimination, micro-aggressions, sexism... That way you start to recognize the patterns. And those patterns call for structural change.”

“But universities can adjust research budgets so that researchers who need a visa do not spend their entire research budget on visas”

What could the UvA change?

Rahbari: “The book was not written with the UvA or even the Netherlands specifically in mind. Nor can we solve all the problems with these stories. There are too many problems and they are too complex. Some issues also do not originate in academia itself and are exacerbated only by universities’ failure to address them.”

Burlyuk: “Exactly! Universities should think about this. They may not have a direct influence on visa policies, but universities can adjust research budgets so that researchers who need a visa do not spend their entire research budget on visas. As a PhD student, I had a research budget of £250 per year, and my visa to the UK cost £500. So on my research budget, I could not even visit the university once. This already creates inequality between two PhD students studying at the same university. We can easily change these things.”


Have we achieved anything yet?

Rahbari: “Yes, absolutely! But more work needs to be done. We need to stay alert because change does not always mean progress; we can always go backwards.”


Could a similar book have been written a decade ago?

Burlyuk: “I suspect it would not have had the same reception. A lot has happened in the last 10 years, and many things like feminism have become mainstream. On the other hand, little has changed in the last 20 years. In my essays, I write about experiences that go back to 2003 when I started my undergraduate degree, and PhD students who read it now fully recognize themselves in it. In that respect, little has changed. It would be interesting to read this book in 10 or 20 years.”


Olga Burlyuk and Ladan Rahbari, Migrant Academics’ Narratives of Precarity and Resilience in Europe. (OpenBook Publishers, 2023), ISBN 9781800649231 Free download here. Paperback price: €17.80