Is this the beginning of the end of early career precarity?

Even before Covid led to so many job losses among casual and fixed-term academic staff, mass insecurity was increasingly being recognised as a blight on the sector. But is there any realistic prospect of permanent contracts all round? Ben Upton examines the cases of Germany and the Netherlands

July 7, 2022
The Netherlands mud marathon to illustrate Is early career precarity finally being addressed?
Source: Alamy

Among the many pressure points in university systems exposed by the pandemic, precarity was perhaps the most prominent. As universities rushed to buttress their finances against the expected devastation caused by mass social and economic shutdown, staff on casual and temporary contracts were the first and the most numerous class of workers to be “let go”.

Universities Australia estimated that at least 17,000 permanent, casual and fixed-term staff lost their jobs in 2020: a large proportion of the total job losses. Some estimates put the figure much higher, amid a sense that fixed-term and casual staff “are not real employees”.

The US, too, is seeing mounting indignation among its early career staff, as graduate student teaching and research assistants at various universities unionise and agitate for better pay and conditions. And casualisation is one of the “four fights” being undertaken by the UK’s University and College Union, which has led to multiple rounds of industrial action in recent years.

But it is not only the marketised Anglo-Saxon systems that are seeing such tensions. In continental Europe, too, early career researchers are pushing back against a system in which, as they see it, oversupply of would-be academics combines with funding pressure and project-focused mindsets to encourage what they see as exploitation by university leaders and more senior academics.

A 2021 report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) lamented that there were “virtually no longitudinal data” on the evolution of precarious academic employment among its relatively wealthy member countries. But there is no doubt that precarity has been growing as the ratio of supply and demand in the academic labour market gets ever more out of balance. In the Netherlands, for instance, the number of doctorates awarded per year has grown by 260 per cent over 30 years, while in France, the ratio of doctoral awards to positions opening at universities or public research organisations is about 10 to 1.

The emergence of protest groups and growth in traditional labour organisation among early career academics underlines the impact that a prolonged period of precarious employment has on the lives of early career academics. “Sometimes working in academia is like being in an abusive relationship,” says Cristiana Strava, a lecturer at Leiden University and a member of Casual Leiden, a group campaigning against a “structural dependence on bogus temporary contracts”. “You think: ‘If I just work harder, if I just put in more nights, put in more weekends, give better feedback to my students, say yes to all the things my managers are pushing down on me, then the university will love me back.’”

sand carvers  work on their piece in front of Berlin's landmark TV tower

But the recognition that it probably will not is shared by Arnout van Ree, another Leiden lecturer and campaigner. “It’s not about the quality of the work you do,” he says. “You’re basically a puppet that’s being replaced regardless of what you do or how you perform. I have described it as being in a cult: you’re being mistreated but you keep coming back, because the teaching, research and colleagues are all wonderful.”

Casual Leiden is a local chapter of Casual Academy, just one of the Dutch national “action groups” that have sprung up in recent years and that draw in a younger and more international demographic than trade unions do. That is important, says Strava, because precarity takes a heavier toll on those with fewer resources and less extensive social networks.

“I come from a working-class background, and [my family and friends] think academia is so glamorous and such a privilege – and it is. But precarity is the underbelly of this intense international mobility,” says Strava, who is originally from Romania and came to Leiden via positions in the UK and Germany.

Alexandra Lopez is a junior lecturer on her first one-year contract at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and part of Casual UvA, which in April launched a cross-faculty marking strike demanding permanent contracts, investment in professional development and workload transparency.

It seems to be having an effect. In May, the university said it wanted to end annual contracts for junior lecturers and to institute a single employment policy across all its faculties without waiting for the Dutch annual university labour agreement to be finalised. “We appreciate the precedent the university is aiming to set,” says Lopez. “We appreciate the sense of urgency they seem to be conveying.”

The current collective agreement limits the number of short-term positions universities can create: only 22 per cent of all contracts issued by Dutch universities can be for less than four years. That figure is much lower than in many other leading research nations. At Swiss universities, for instance, 80 per cent of all scientific staff have a fixed-term contract. In Germany, 78 per cent of academics are on fixed-term contracts, according to a 2020 study.


In Germany, mounting anger about this level of precarity crystallised in 2021, when hundreds of academics took to Twitter to rebut a video posted by the federal research ministry that argued that a fixed-term contract law helped the economy, prevented a “clogging up” of academic positions and promoted “the power of innovation”. Their stories under the hashtag #IchbinHanna – a reference to the fictional junior researcher in the video – ultimately resulted in the video being taken down.

A 2007 law imposes a 12-year cap on the amount of time beyond the start of their doctorates that researchers in Germany can spend on temporary contracts. However, rather than taking them on full-time at that point, universities are accused of forcing them out. A 2016 amendment sought to redress precarity by requiring that contract lengths be “appropriate” for a given “qualification”. However, a recent evaluation found that while this initially lengthened the average temporary contract by up to about six months, to 22 months, the effect then faded a little.

Kristin Eichhorn, a literature researcher at the University of Paderborn and one of the originators of the #IchbinHanna campaign, tells Times Higher Education that the culture driving short-term contracts has not changed. German universities still “consider it a matter of making professorships attractive to international scholars. They argue, ‘They won’t come unless we promise them that they can hire their own people and then let them go whenever they like.’”

Campaigners assert that offering junior colleagues permanent employment would be good for teaching and research because good working conditions make for good work. But some argue that less precarity would mean impoverished conditions for all. “The problem is not how to find lifelong employment for people but to fix an early date to leave the train,” says Dieter Lenzen, former president of the Free University of Berlin and the University of Hamburg. “It is not helpful to give these people the idea of getting lifelong employment in a second-class carriage.”

Lenzen is one of the few willing to speak publicly about what he sees as the upsides of academic precarity. He says anti-precarity campaigners “treat this problem like any kind of employment, but [academic employment] is not any kind of employment. It’s different. It’s like art. It’s like doing theatre and so on. If you are unsure about your personal future, you will give your best. Creativity is also the result of insecurity.”

Lenzen justifies this by citing the explosion of permanent, non-professorial positions in 1980s Germany. “I learned that people who are sure about their future and are sure that there will be no chair become lazy,” he says.

That experience chimes with that of Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Centre for Higher Education (CHE), a German thinktank, who began a PhD in Bochum in the early 1990s. “There were just people sitting around, and you couldn’t involve them really in the working groups,” he says. “Maybe the situation we’re in today is an exaggerated response to the situation we had in the late ’80s or early ’90s.”

He concedes that a particular problem in Germany is a mismatch between the length of research associates’ contracts that fund most PhD students’ studies and the length of time it actually takes to obtain a PhD.

“I’m not so enthusiastic about this idea that everyone has to be permanent, but I really would agree that it is a kind of scandal that you hire people for one year when it’s clear you need them for three years and that they will not reach their qualification goal,” he says. “I see the signals from the universities that they take [precarity] seriously, but we don’t really see it at the moment in the data and in the numbers.”

Beach chair

Karin Schumacher, vice-president for quality development at the University of Heidelberg, dismisses the idea that “you need to be in an insecure and unstable position to be creative”, noting that “it would mean that all the professors, all the people in permanent positions, are past their prime”.

Still, she concedes that there is a need for non-permanent positions to make sure that Germany still has “generation after generation going through the system and qualifying”. And she agrees that not every doctoral candidate is suited to becoming a permanent academic. The best solution, she believes, is for universities to do much more to prepare doctoral students for careers outside academia.

It seems that universities are already moving in that direction. A 2021 survey of 138 universities in 28 European countries by the European University Association found that 81 per cent offer some form of optional career development training, while 34 per cent make such preparation mandatory. Teaching transferable skills to doctoral students might be thought relatively easy – although supervisors who do not have experience outside academia might not think so. Either way, the harder bit comes in annual appraisals, when academics are expected to give their doctoral students a realistic sense of where their future may lie. For Schumacher, telling her charges that they are not cut out for academia is “the most difficult part of my job”.

That is why Heidelberg is now training both supervisors and other doctoral mentors in how to have that awkward but formative conversation. Part of the challenge is also to convince them of the need to have such conversations in the first place – resisting the temptation to keep safe pairs of hands tied up in dead-end positions. “You need to ask, ‘Is this just about the project or is this about the career of the person who is doing it?’” Schumacher says.

“It’s not in the interest of universities, but I think universities have probably looked the other way for too long, and that might have to do with the very strong notion that it’s the freedom of the individual professor to decide what is best to do in their department.”

Waiters race

It is one thing for universities to implement mentoring and career counselling. It is quite another for them to turn on its head an employment structure that is very well established around the world, in both cultural and financial terms.

The Berlin region, for instance, made a decisive move to end precarity last year, compelling local higher education institutions to offer permanent contracts to any postdocs who meet the requirements at the end of a fixed-term contract. However, “this idea is very hard to implement in practice, which means that we have not been able to make as many postdoc appointments as we have in the past while we work out the details,” says Günter Ziegler, the current president of the Free University of Berlin.

The uncertainty into which the sudden law change plunged the sector was exemplified by Sabine Kunst’s resignation as president of Humboldt University of Berlin. She cited the lack of funding for the extra positions, explaining to THE that extra funding was just “one of the factors you would need to make the transformation [away from short-term contracts] in the German system”. Berlin lawmakers have since agreed to pass a “repair amendment” implementing a transition period before the change takes effect and clarifying that the postdoc roles it creates will be tenure-track and include extra conditions before permanence is granted.

“We do have the goal to hire people on permanent contracts who perform long-term, permanent tasks and duties, but for this we need to redesign the current career system,” says Ziegler. The new system must include career counselling and also “incorporate flexibility and new positions for a research and teaching environment that is innovative in its ambitions and attentive to new topics and projects”.

The Berlin law change is now being examined by Germany’s constitutional court, with legal experts telling THE that other federal states are very unlikely to pass similar provisions before a verdict is reached. “They will do it, but more carefully,” says CHE’s Ziegele. He believes it is unlikely that Germany’s central government will introduce a Dutch-style cap on temporary contracts, though it is possible that its federal states could do so.

For his part, Lenzen also says shifting towards greater permanence would be impossible with public finances squeezed by inflation, pandemic recovery and the war in Ukraine. Germany’s SPD-Green coalition government has promised a 3 per cent annual funding increase for universities, but in the current circumstances, Lenzen thinks that substantial cuts are more likely.

In Spain, too, there has been controversy over the wisdom of legislators making stipulations about precarity without considering the funding implications. A law passed at the end of last year gave temporary staff in the public sector – which includes universities – the right to request a permanent position at the end of their contracts. However, the entire sector cried foul. José Torralba, vice-president of the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain and director of the IMDEA Materials Institute, complained that the law ignored the reality of research, where about 60 per cent of contracts are temporary, and warned that rather than reducing precarity, it would encourage institutions to employ staff on contracts of just six months, which do not grant the right to request a permanent position.

The government responded by exempting universities from the labour law. However, it then proposed a new university law that would impose a 20 per cent cap on the proportion of teaching and research staff who can be employed on temporary contracts – down from 40 per cent at present. And last month, the staff of universities minister Joan Subirats surprised everyone by telling local media that, in fact, the limit would be lowered to 8 per cent.

The university law also enshrines an expectation that no one should be on a temporary contract for more than 10 years beyond the beginning of their PhD. Currently, the average age at which Spanish academics obtain permanent positions is 45. The law would also commit the government to spending 1 per cent of gross domestic product on public universities – a significant hike on the 0.7 per cent currently spent and reversing a 20 per cent decline in funding since the 2008 financial crash.

Budgetary justifications for precarity are cited regularly by university leaders.

“We want to have more permanent positions, but that’s only possible when we get more money,” says Anton Pijpers, president of Utrecht University. Universities of the Netherlands, the Dutch national rectors’ conference, charts a fall in per-student funding of 20 per cent between 2000 and 2021. In the two decades from 1997 to 2017, the proportion of direct funding from the ministry fell from 55 per cent to 43 per cent, while that won through competitive grant calls and contract research rose from 45 per cent to 56 per cent.

ice skater walking through thin ice on the frozen Hofvijver outside the parliament

Dutch academia is averse to the risk of offering permanent contracts to people working on projects whose funding is fixed-term, says Han van Krieken, rector of Radboud University Nijmegen. “The way many of the researchers work is: ‘Now we have money for five years, but we’re not sure we’ll have it five years from now, so let’s be on the safe side.’”

But campaigners in both the Netherlands and Germany reject the idea that funding pressures alone explain or excuse the growth of precarious careers. “It’s purely bad economics and bad management,” says Casual Leiden’s Strava. “It’s a really long struggle because you have the middle management and the upper management shifting the blame.”

Her colleague, van Ree, agrees: “They look at the numbers and say, ‘If we keep somebody temporary, it will be cheaper in the long run.’ Well, actually, no, because you don’t calculate how much you invest in these people in terms of training and quality of teaching, in the networks they build, in the quality of education itself,” he says.

So who is right? “There is truth in both sides,” says Ben Jongbloed, a researcher at the University of Twente’s Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies. “Competitive funding is, by nature, mostly short term, so it is tricky to appoint permanent staff on such a funding basis. Student numbers do also drive most university funding and numbers change, so this can also be volatile.” So departments – where most staffing decisions are made – “are still very much stuck in the habit of appointing flexible staff, like elsewhere in society”.

Marion Stolp was until recently the human resources director of the University of Groningen. She says some human resources advisers are occupied solely with recruitment, leaving no time for strategic planning or development and causing them to neglect the costs of using repeated temporary contracts.

“You need to have some flexibility because you never know what will happen and how many students you will get, but it’s very good to have a discussion every year with the faculties and see if we can go lower than 22 per cent [for temporary appointments]. For this, we need to do strategic personnel planning.”

CHE’s Ziegele says universities may need to get better at handling their unpredictable income streams, such as by pooling project funds at the unit or faculty level to create permanent positions out of recurring but temporary funds. “That’s an issue of becoming more professional with your financial management and risk management,” he says.


In the absence of such measures, the acrimony over academics’ contractual status is only likely to grow. Van Ree made waves last year when he successfully sued Leiden for extending his temporary contract rather than making him permanent. And while the ruling was not definitive, he says the judge’s sharp criticism of Leiden’s interpretation of the law will make management rethink its approach to contracts.

“I’m one of the few who took the university to court because there’s this fear that if you do this, you will be blackballed,” he says. “At one point, an HR person at the university said, ‘If you do this, you’re never going to be employed by Leiden again.’” Even so, his understanding of Dutch law put him in a better position than many international colleagues, he adds. Leiden University did not respond to a request to comment.

One junior academic, who prefers to remain anonymous, came to the Netherlands to study from a developing country. She says she faced a decade of bullying and discrimination from her institute director but felt unable to speak out because she was employed on a series of temporary contracts. “He made me feel really insecure. I was feeling so bad I didn’t want to show up at the office. Even after I left the university, I went to therapy for a long time. My relationship broke down as well,” she says.

Holding a teaching-only position left no opportunity for advancement in a reward system built for research, and despite working 80-hour weeks, she says, she was passed over for promotion in favour of less experienced, ethnically Dutch colleagues. “You can never get a job because you have zero research time, and you cannot get an assistant professorship if you don’t publish. It’s a dead-end job.” She recently hired a lawyer to confront her university with what she says are the labour law violations she suffered from.

She expects the university to finally offer her a permanent contract rather than allowing the case to go to court. If it does, that might be thought to bear out Strava’s contention that “the tide is really changing. When I came here, everybody said: ‘Oh, but in the Netherlands, we don’t protest. It’s a culture of consensus; you don’t want to rock the boat too hard.’ Maybe somehow the pandemic has shifted the ground somewhat.”

Van Ree agrees. “I would say in the next few years [university leaders and politicians] don’t have a choice: they need to include, for example, lecturers and precarity in the collective labour agreement and take more serious steps at a national level. At the same time, at the local level, I think this is going to be a much longer struggle.”

For Eichhorn, the #IchbinHanna originator, changes to Germany’s national fixed-term contract law must happen in concert with wider reforms to tenure-track processes and other paths to permanence if they are to properly address precarity. But with all the political attention currently focused on precarity, she is hopeful that this will happen.

“We have a shot, absolutely,” she says. “If not now, it will never happen.”


Print headline: Is early career precarity finally being addressed?

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Reader's comments (2)

As a round about way of getting a truthful answer to the career problem in research science, over the last 15 years or so I have casually asked various senior (therefore continuously successful) biomedical research scientists in Australia whether they would recommend a research career in science for their children. Many said how rewarding their career was, yet not one said yes. All invoked the inbuilt insecurity and the lottery-like aspects of grant application success in an environment where in each round 80-90% of grant applications will go unfunded. It looked, and still looks, to me like a crisis in confidence in choosing research science as a career, and students (at least my students) are aware of this. I guess this demoralization is not restricted to research science.
The real world can be a cruel place in which to study and / or work. Increasing numbers of undergraduates and post graduates are finding themselves in long term debt after being in higher education. All Universities should now issue potential students with a "Financial Wealth Warning" indicating that HE can seriously damage your wealth. The academic world is part of the market economy where demand and supply of labour is unpredictable. Take care to ensure that the jobs you apply for are sustainable.


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