Arts and humanities academics say they barely make a living wage

Next Tuesday 28 March, on Teachers’ Day, a large-scale, nationwide demonstration will be taking place to protest against the chronic underfunding of the humanities in Czechia. Academic communities from arts and humanities faculties in Prague, Brno, Olomouc, Ostrava and a number of other cities have declared warning strikes and planned protest marches, as well as a programme of events open to students and the public. I spoke to Mirka Horová from Charles University’s Faculty of Arts in Prague to find out more.

“The point is to try and raise awareness about the conditions that we are working under here and have been for decades. While obviously Teachers’ Day is also celebrating primary and secondary school teachers, and their pay has been amended, rightfully and after a long struggle, our situation is still quite dismal.

“We are working several contracts because the pay we get from our primary job provider is simply not enough to cover basic existential needs, especially at a time like this when prices are soaring. But it’s not just a matter of recent years – it has been like this for decades. There are professors across our disciplines who have to work several contracts – this is unprecedented on an international level.

“We would like to raise awareness in society about our situation, because we are largely unseen.”

Photo illustrative: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

So it’s a one-day strike – can I call it a strike?

“Well yes, it is a walk-out. There are certain events taking place at the faculties involved. Here in the morning we have a series of lectures and seminars that reflect both the current crisis of funding here and elsewhere across the Czech Republic, but also a series of seminars showcasing what we actually do here that’s relevant – various mini-courses in languages and debates, etc.

“And then at 3pm, at least for the Prague event, we gather here and we walk across the bridge to the government building and then on to the Castle, as a symbolic action.

“This is not something that we choose to do out of having nothing better to do, but we felt it was important to join our colleagues in primary and secondary education and raise awareness about our own situation in the humanities across the Czech Republic.”

Sometimes I feel like the humanities have to defend themselves more than other disciplines about their right to exist or their use or their function. People can be quite cutting sometimes even though I think most people wouldn’t want to live in a world without the arts and the humanities. What do you have to say about that?

“This is unfortunately not to do with the Czech Republic alone, this is a worldwide phenomenon which is to do with the increased impact of the exact sciences on everyday life and their immediate pragmatic use. Which is of course very well, but the humanities having to defend their position is another battle which unfortunately also informs, to some degree at least, our situation here.

“The humanities also have to defend their meaningfulness in the modern age, in the 21st century – why do we read poetry for three years, for instance? Well, the answers are several: you gain an ethical outlook that’s very valuable, especially in an age where ethics has become the central issue in terms of the development of AI, and the cross-pollination between the humanities and the medical and natural sciences is vital for the development of a sustainable future.

“I think it’s important to also say that we are part of the process – the process has begun, we are not sidelined. There are many exciting collaborative projects going on. Unfortunately, funding is vital to research of this kind.

“And it has a lot to offer – from immediately practical disciplines like teacher training or ethics or language studies, to wherever you might imagine the informed human mind might want to go, with ethical bounds.

“So contrary perhaps to received opinion about the use of the humanities, we do factor in quite radically. For instance in the recent Ukraine crisis, the Ukrainian department has become vital to the logistics of dealing with the crisis here. So disciplines that have been regarded as marginal or smaller suddenly become very relevant and central. And that’s just one example of what we do here.”

What can people do to support you if they want to?

“Well, we’d be very happy if – there is a website called ‘The Hour of Truth’ or ‘Hodina pravdy’ – if you just google that you’ll find it and the programme is there. And it gives you the regional programmes, in Olomouc, for instance, as well as Prague, the timetable of the various things that I’ve described – the lectures, the debates, the small seminars, and also what is happening in the afternoon.

“We’d be very happy for interested parties and the public to both have a look at what we do, why we’re doing it, there are a series of statements on the website, both in Czech and in English, and it also gives you the programme. And we’d be very for happy for people to join us on the march as well as in the morning for the other activities.”