Germany’s short-term fix on temporary contracts wearing off

Experts say fleeting effect of amending Germany’s fixed-term contract law shows need for wider career reforms

May 31, 2022
Broken clock
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Changes to German law lengthened temporary contracts in academia, a long-awaited analysis has found, but a rapid return to old ways suggests broader reforms are needed.

An exception to German labour law allows academics to be hired on temporary contracts for up to six years either side of their doctorate. A 2016 amendment sought to end misuse by requiring that contract length be “appropriate” for a given “qualification”.

The government-backed analysis of that change found it lengthened contracts from an average of about 15 months for non-doctoral staff or 17 for doctoral staff in 2015 up to 21 or 22 months in 2017. This was short-lived, however, with the average falling to 20 months by 2019.

“The employers in the beginning were very careful, they were worried about the law, and they tried to change their behaviour,” Andreas Keller, deputy chair for universities at the Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW), told Times Higher Education.

“After a few years they realised: ‘Oh, nothing’s happened, there are no judgments by [the] courts,’ and they returned to the practice as it was before.”

The president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), Peter-André Alt, did not respond to Dr Keller’s claim but suggested further declines in contract lengths in 2020 were driven by one-year extensions as a result of the pandemic.

Statements on the evaluation by HRK and the U15 group of research universities show the tightrope institutions must walk around temporary staffing, with some presidents privately wary of changes that could hurt institutional competitiveness.

Both lobby groups welcomed the slight increase in contract lengths, but the HRK said that a “sober analysis” must accept the “limited” jobs in science and that “selection procedures are necessarily highly competitive”.

The #IchbinHanna campaign against precarity in German academia helped push the state of Berlin to introduce compulsory permanent contracts for qualifying postdocs last year. The costs of that change prompted Sabine Kunst to resign as president of Humboldt University, later telling THE that her country needed an academic career master plan.

“There’s a culture that we have to hire people for a certain amount of time and then we get rid of them again so we can give these jobs to new people who are in their qualification phase,” said Kristin Eichhorn, a literature researcher at Paderborn University and one of the originators of #IchbinHanna. “That culture hasn’t changed. The law can only do so much.”

Professor Alt told THE that it was “a common misunderstanding” that a legal framework can regulate all aspects of academic activities and employment.

But Dr Keller highlighted the German “tradition” that a newly recruited professor was “able to hire all the staff working with them so the staff that are already here have to leave”.

“The HRK, they pretend to be the voice of higher education institutions, but concerning this issue in fact they are the voice of professors,” he said.

The GEW did its own analysis of the amendment in April 2020, finding similar results to the government. Freya Gassmann, a researcher at Saarland University  and the lead author of the study, said many had expected the courts to clarify the laws‘ ambiguous use of ”qualification”, but rulings have left it open.

She said future amendments could set time limits for specific qualifications, such as three years for a PhD, or simply clarify whether universities can stretch the term to cover everyday academic activities, like writing a paper.

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