Germany’s academic system is admired all over the world. It is almost entirely publicly funded, while studying at most of its higher education institutions is free of charge. Germany is also widely considered a stronghold of science and academic excellence.
However, the working conditions enjoyed by a vast majority of German academic staff do not seem to live up to the stellar reputation German science has internationally. Far from it, one could say. Precarious work contracts, time pressure, work-life incompatibility, dire career prospects, competitive individualism, and mental health issues, are only some of the concerns faced by a growing number of academic staff in Germany, particularly the younger ones.
To call attention to the gravity of the situation, Dr. Amrei Bahr, PD Dr. Kristin Eichhorn, and Dr. Sebastian Kubon, launched a campaign on Twitter, which has attracted a great deal of attention both in German academia and beyond over the past several months.
In this interview, Amrei, Kristin, and Sebastian explain what is happening in Germany and what their campaign is all about. They also highlight, among other things, some of the ways in which Germany’s situation is specific when it comes to the career prospects for early-career academics, while also pointing out a number of important parallels with other countries. To conclude, I asked them about how they imagined the way forward and what next steps they had in mind for the campaign.
Your Twitter campaign seems to have hit a nerve among many German scholars, on social media and beyond. How did you come up with the idea?
A colleague of ours, with whom we are only acquainted via Twitter, posted on Saturday, 31st of October 2020 that she would dress up as Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act, shorter WissZeitVG) for Halloween. Sebastian responded that, in his opinion, this would be an unbearably cruel and disturbing costume. As he prefers to celebrate Reformation Day, which is a holiday in Hamburg, he suggested to collect 95 theses against the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz and to nail them on the university doors.
Then Amrei came into play, wrote “Good Idea. Let’s do this!”, and started to post theses against the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz introducing the hashtag #95vsWissZeitVG. Kristin, who has been engaging against precarious working conditions for a long time, joined in and kept posting lots of theses throughout the day. Suddenly colleagues from all over Germany and Europe joined us and we counted a few thousand tweets and retweets already on that particular weekend (while people proceed to post critique of the WissZeitVG linked with our hashtag up until today).
And so it began… It was really not a campaign which was carefully planned beforehand. Instead, it escalated rather quickly. Our conclusion, and obviously the conclusion of many, many colleagues is that the time is ripe for resistance—not only to oppose precarious working conditions but to install a high class, high impact higher education system. For this reason we collected all the tweets and curated a list with—surprise!—95 theses against the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz which we then published on a website. Natalie Roxburgh’s and Levi Roach’s help was vital for the English translation that you can also find on our homepage.
Precarious academic labour has become more pronounced all over the world in recent years. In this sense, Germany is part of this global wave and like many other countries its situation is also specific. How would you explain this situation to someone not familiar with the German academic system, in a nutshell?
In Germany, there are mostly two kinds of positions for researchers (with few exceptions): You either hold one of the rare professor positions, or you have a non-tenured position with a fixed-term contract. 92% of the academic staff without a professor position under age 45 are non-tenured—and they are by far the largest group in academia.
The WissZeitVG disastrously adds to the insecurity caused by fixed-term contracts because it dictates an expiration date to the careers of researchers: You can only be employed on fixed-term contracts for a maximum of six years prior and a maximum of six years after receiving your PhD. If you do not manage to attain a full professorship by then (which is not very likely given that hundreds of excellent researchers will apply for each of the few positions at hand), the system will most certainly kick you out. Unlike in other countries, there is hardly any chance of getting tenure through a promotion. The “second book”, the habilitation, along with its accompanying examinations, is still in many fields the prerequisite, yet by no means a guarantee, for a full professorship.
Researchers who are not professors, both while doing their PhD and afterwards, also need to deal with diverse deeply entrenched relationships of dependency, which can have severe effects: For instance, supervisors are most often also employers—hence, they can put their employees under immense pressure e.g. to work harder or to choose a certain approach in research, given that they have the power to both grade their employees’ PhD theses (and these grades do matter in the German system!) and to decide whether or not they will receive a contract extension. All of this hinders independent research.
When it comes to the response to the campaign among academia, has there been any difference between professors and non-professorial academic staff?
Indeed, there are differences. Non-professorial academic staff with a fixed-term contract reacted unanimously with approval. Some were really grateful about the opportunity to express their concerns or, of course, their anger about the system. However, we assume that there will for sure be lots of colleagues who did not dare to respond coram publico because they fear that the prolongation of their contract could otherwise be put at peril. We received some direct messages in which colleagues expressed their relief about this act of resistance but stressed that they do not want to support it publicly for given reasons.
There were fewer reactions by tenured professors as one would wish but, of course, also some very supportive ones. This is very important and we are happy about these acts of solidarity. In our opinion the major difference is the one between academics working in humanities and those working in STEM. Colleagues from STEM-faculties responded hardly at all, for unknown reasons. We assume that dissatisfied engineers, for example, leave academia sooner because there are so many more attractive opportunities for them outside academia. Those faculties seem to have a specific problem fostered by the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz in that they are unable to offer working conditions that can even remotely compete with the private sector in terms of payment and job security and therefore lose qualified employees early on.
The campaign has received attention also beyond the social media, including the mainstream German media. What were the highlights in this respect?
We are very happy that both politicians and unions have reached out to us. One of the highlights is certainly the book we have been offered to edit on the topic and plan to publish later this year.
Internationally, Germany is perceived as a stronghold of science and, in terms of articles published, it is the world’s third largest producer of scientific knowledge. How would you interpret this, having in mind its academic career system and the accompanying working conditions?
Germany’s international reputation depends largely on the work of non-tenured scholars who publish books and articles hoping this will lead them to a permanent position. It is the pressure to publish as much as possible that creates this outstanding output because nobody can afford to fall behind. However, quantity does not automatically equal quality.
Furthermore, this situation creates a toxic atmosphere of competition and makes people prone to depression or burnout. Already many promising researchers turn their back on academia because they are no longer willing to live with that pressure. Will Germany continue to be a leading nation of research and science? Given the current frustration we are constantly confronted with this international advantage might very well soon be a thing of the past.
Germany has many international scholars, many of which have moved homes and families in order to take temporary employment at a German university. What is their position like in comparison with their German colleagues?
There are a number of campaigns aimed at international scholars advertising the advantages of the German system. However, for many international employees the decision to move to Germany has unforeseeable consequences when their contracts run out and scholars are forced to raise money for their own subsequent employment. This, of course, is much harder to do in a foreign country when you are unfamiliar with the system and the legal situation. Many scholars come to Germany unaware of the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz and the fact that they can only be employed for a certain number of years on fixed-term contracts before facing unemployment and, in some cases, Hartz IV.
Germany makes international scholars many attractive promises but, after having profited from their work for a few years, leaves them alone in figuring out what will become of them. It is quite cynical that the ministry in charge, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), on its website, which provides information in English aimed at international researchers, praises the WissZeitVG as a law providing “a certain degree of flexibility” for institutions—as though that was a selling point for employees!
Do you see a potential, or a necessity, for a movement across countries regarding the precarious working conditions in academia? Or do you see this as a rather national issue?
Absolutely. On the one hand, it is a national issue because of the particular legal situation in each country. On the other hand, the exploitation of academic work can be witnessed in almost all western countries. Tenured jobs have been in decline for years in the U.S., and there are many protests and calls for reform in European countries as well. There have been significant budget cuts due to the pandemic in the U.K., and the current developments in France are also deeply concerning.
It is important to understand that the same unethical mindset with regards to researchers and the goal to generate cheap academic labour can be found all around the globe. Therefore, we need to collaborate, yes. But in order to tackle the specific legal obstacles in each individual country, there is no way around national approaches.
Your campaign especially aimed at drawing attention of policy makers and those who are in position to do something to improve the situation. Have there been any responses from them, policy makers in particular?
Yes, we have been contacted by ministries on the federal state level. We have also heard that our initiative has received the attention of several members of the Bundestag.
If you were in the position to do something about it, what would that be the first thing you would do?
There is no one thing that will easily fix the problem. We have to make significant changes in several areas simultaneously, which is why this is such a difficult endeavour. One thing is to change the culture of academic work, which is now often a place of individualism and exploitation of people’s intrinsic motivation. Researchers without full professorships need to be recognized as scholars in their own right, no longer infantilized as “Nachwuchs” [German for “juniors”].
This requires a change in the way we talk about them as well as many regulatory alterations: Non-fixed term contracts after a successful doctorate must be the rule, not the exception, and tasks must be designed realistically to avoid the necessity of systematic unpaid overtime, which on average currently amounts to 10 to 13 hours per week (!) for researchers with and without a PhD respectively.
In other words, lawmakers must ensure that labour laws which already apply are actually observed and repeal all those exceptions for academia like the WissZeitVG that have made this such a toxic workplace to begin with. We will finally have to end the chronic underfunding of the entire educational sector. The price that we as a society will have to pay if we stay on the current path is without doubt going to be lot higher.
Do you have any advice for younger scholars who would like to engage? How do you see your own academic career in light of your campaign and do you feel your own career prospects are in danger because you speak out?
These are difficult questions. Starting with the last question, we are inclined to think that our career prospects are less in danger because of this campaign, but rather because of the obstacle called Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz.
Giving advice is difficult. In our opinion though, it is always a good idea to inform yourself about your rights and duties early on in your career. We would recommend to read the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz right when you start off and keep in mind that this is the value public policy attributes to your engagement, your work as an academic, as a researcher. You may then wish to make your individual career decisions being aware of these general conditions. It can be very rewarding to engage in networks, Mittelbauvertretungen, unions, or even in political parties to make a difference.
With regards to our careers we come to the following conclusion which might as well serve as an advice: it is possible that your career prospects are in danger in the short term if you choose to speak up but they are much more in danger in the long term if you choose not to make yourself heard at all.
What would be the next steps in the campaign?
In addition to the upcoming book on #95vsWissZeitVG we are toying around with a bunch of ideas. Just follow us on Twitter and see what will happen! Until then, we have quite a number of interviews and discussion dates in our calendar. For more details please check out our website under “Termine”.
The featured image has been created by David Adler
specifically for the #95vsWissZeitVG campaign
Jelena Brankovic is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Sociology, Bielefeld University (Germany). Currently she is researching the role rankings in the institutional dynamics within and across sectors. Her interests extend to the practice of theorizing in social sciences, academic writing and publishing in interdisciplinary fields, and academic peer work. She serves as Books Editor on the Editorial Board of Higher Education and is Joint Lead Editor of the ECHER blog. Twitter: @jelena3121