Academic fixed-term jobs changes in Germany split opinion

A new law to support early career researchers has reopened arguments over limits on the use of short-term contracts in the country

March 10, 2016
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Precarious future: one view is that precarity creates internationally mobile scientists

New rules set to take effect soon in Germany have focused attention on the plight of the vast numbers of the country’s academic workforce on short-term contracts.

Some 85 per cent of staff in universities or research institutes in Germany below the rank of professor are on such contracts, despite efforts to limit their use over the past decade, according to an analysis by the German Rectors' Conference (the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz or HRK).

These moves include a federal law passed in 2007 that bars universities from employing academics on a fixed-term contract if they have held a PhD for longer than six years.

The academic fixed-term contract act, known as the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG), also prohibits institutions from employing academic staff studying for a PhD for longer than six years – giving young researchers a 12-year window to find a coveted permanent job or external funding to enable them to stay in academia.

Under changes to the WissZeitVG, passed by the German Bundestag in January, universities must now provide more support for early career researchers to find a permanent post, particularly equipping them with more qualifications in the first two years after they have gained a doctorate.

Trade unions have broadly welcomed the move, while universities are pleased that the more radical proposals to ban the use of fixed-term contracts for non-academic staff were not taken forward.

But the new rules have reignited the debate over Germany’s so-called academic precariat and the lack of tenure track programmes to help more academics find permanent jobs in higher education.

“There has been huge discussions about why there are not more permanent positions beside professor level, but funding from [Germany's] states is not enough to create these positions,” explained Henning Rockmann, the HRK's head of governance.

The failure to create more permanent positions comes despite huge investment in research from the government and 16 regional states via its €4.6 billion (£3.6 billion) Excellence Initiative, whose 10-year run will finish in 2017.

The 43 “clusters of excellence” supported by the scheme now, however, face uncertainty themselves as institutions wait to see whether the initiative’s funding will be extended beyond 2017 – the recommendation of a major independent report published in January.

The high level of precarity faced by German academics does not provoke the outrage that some might expect, said Vita Peacock, a postdoctoral fellow at University College London’s department of anthropology, who has studied the issue at one of the country’s leading research institutes, the Max Planck Society.

“It is quite normal to have only one scientist at a Max Planck department – the director – on a permanent contract,” said Dr Peacock.

“But the view taken – not just by senior people but by postdocs – is that precarity creates internationally mobile scientists and is ultimately good for science,” she said.

Many professors had a “huge amount of resources and other staff had nothing”, but it was “something that people are used to”, she added.

However, many researchers feel that the WissZeitVG is unfair because it forces fixed-term researchers to leave German academia six years after gaining a PhD, but does not provide any extra opportunities, Dr Peacock said.

“It is a stick, but there is no carrot,” she said. “It is why you see so many German scientists working outside their system."

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