Demands of the Network For Decent Labour in Academia
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Precarity is the true face of ‘excellence’


While the German academic system might promote a public image that stresses the production of excellence, the reality is one of structural job insecurity and often unjustifiably low wages. More than 80% of academics in German universities are secured by fixed-term contracts. For the majority of them there is no realistic long-term prospect of staying in academia, even though they bear the brunt of the regular research and teaching workload. This is a scandal, which is not mitigated by the fact that fixed-term contracts are becoming more common outside academia as well, albeit to a much smaller extent. Academia is not a safari that you take at your own risk, but a job, and one that is overwhelmingly done by highly qualified, motivated and committed people. Despite this, the German academic system treats them as a sort of glorified intern even into their 50s. In the period between completing their degrees and becoming a professor (euphemistically known as a “qualification phase”), graduates, post-docs, and qualified lecturers are regularly employed on a fixed-term basis. They are kept in a state of existential dependence vis-à-vis their professor, subject to heavy performance and conformity demands. As a consequence, career paths (and therefore individual life plans) become unpredictable, the freedom to carry out academic work is restricted and quality suffers. There is a dangerous interplay between the anachronistic tradition of the “University of Chairs” and the increasing marketisation of the university system. We – PhD candidates, post-docs, lecturers, project assistants, student employees, and professors at German universities – are no longer prepared to put up with this situation. We have therefore created the cross-faculty and nationwide Network for Decent Labour in Academia.


Together, we demand a fundamental reform of the German university system, focusing in particular on the following points:  



1. No extended fixed-term employment in universities


We need permanent employment contracts to be standard, at the very least for those who have completed their PhDs. Only this will enable academics to make realistic decisions about their professional careers and life plans, and carry out challenging and independent – i.e. high quality – academic work. One of the key causes of the current disastrous situation in academic employment is the 2007 Temporary Employment in Higher Education-Act (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz; for a full english translation of the Act, see here). It was supposed to prevent time restrictions on employment in higher education, but has instead made short-term employment the norm. Under the Act it has become standard for contractual employment periods to last from a few months to two or three years at best. This forces academics into interim phases of unemployment which – often supported by unemployment benefits – must be spent taking unpaid further training and/or securing third party funding. The Act allows a maximum of 12 years of fixed-term employment, after which many academics are effectively banned from further employment in academia. After reaching this limit, academics face two options: either obtain one of the rare professorships available, or be ejected from the employment market as unemployable, because overqualified and highly specialized. This is completely absurd and unacceptable.


We demand: Abolition of the Fixed Term Academic Contracts-Act.




2. Adequate job descriptions for PhD candidates, post-docs and student staff


The PhD is the central qualification required for an academic career, but the process of completing it is often financially insecure. Mandatory minimum employment periods must be introduced for the initial contracts of those embarking on a PhD. Factors which might prolong completion periods must be taken into account, both financially and time-wise. These might include parental leave, sick leave, time off to care for family and dependents, as well as teaching or administrative tasks. Five years (plus one for some cases, as is already standard in the Netherlands) is a realistic estimate of the time it takes to complete a PhD, particularly considering the teaching and administrative work imposed on PhD candidates employed at universities. Beyond that, it is important to develop financial models which support students during transition periods before and after receiving their PhD.

A PhD should, in principle, be enough to guarantee access to permanent contracts at universities or research institutions. If such positions entail responsibilities for core domains, including research, teaching or administration, authority over relevant activities must no longer be the sole purview of professors. These activities may be variable and changeable and may well be regarded as a stepping stone to a more responsible position with greater decision-making authority. If the abolishment of fixed-term contracts might, at first, privilege one generation over another, this problem can be overcome through a gradual and long-term transformation of employment structures. An immediate intervention against fixed-term contracts is, however, of utmost urgency, in particular for teaching staff.

There are two possible ways of implementing this: either fixed-term “junior scholars” and mid-level positions are transformed into permanent professorships, or non-professorial permanent positions are massively expanded (following the model of lecturer and reader positions or academic advisers), structurally improved in status, and equipped with additional authority and decision-making power. A combination of the two is possible. They require different approaches in terms of academic self-governance, in which all non-professorial employees should be included on an equal footing. Democratising institutions (see 6.) will therefore play a central role in the restructuring process.

In order to successfully implement these profound changes, not only must the right to extended fixed-term employment be abolished, but targeted incentive systems must be introduced and sanctions be imposed on the use of fixed-term contracts. Importantly, this restructuring must not create a division between research and teaching staff, such as by institutionalizing different contracts for those working on research projects and those covering the teaching load. Already now, many currently employed primarily to teach have no time left to carry out their own research or pursue their academic career. Research and teaching must remain connected in universities.

For this reason, we demand an appropriate salary pay-scale, i.e. one in line with wage trends in the public sector, for all student employees, as well as the abolition of the common practice of “piecemeal contracts”.


We demand: Appropriate scale-based wages and minimum term contracts, subject to social insurance contributions, for PhD students, along with permanent employment for post-docs as standard.




3. Abolition of the professorial examination (Habilitation): The PhD is sufficient for permanent employment


Internationally, the Habilitation as a final stage of academic qualification is almost unique. It remains a scandalous problem for those who have completed it but remain without a permanent professorship (in German, they are called ‚Privatdozent/Privatdozentin – ‘private readers‘). As long as the Habilitation remains standard requirement for professorships (most of which are currently chairs), our primary demand is for appropriate wages and secure employment for those who have reached this stage (see 4.). In the medium term, however, we demand the abolition of the Habilitation. It is neither a meaningful measurement of specialist capability nor of teaching competence. It is currently common practice for a small committee of faculty members to decide whether a respective Habilitation is to be awarded or not, meaning that balanced academic judgement often comes into conflict with individual institutional interests. Second and third books or substantial publications can tell you far more about a candidate’s quality of research than the current practice. What is more, the existence of the Habilitation suggests that one’s true legitimacy as an academic hinges upon it. It is, however, the PhD that demonstrates the individual capability of academic research. In addition, although the habilitation is formally required in order to teach, the reality is that most teaching is carried out by those who have not completed it. In short, the path to regular academic employment must begin when the PhD is awarded – not at a later point in life when employment choices are diminishing rapidly.


We demand: Abolition of the Habilitation system.




4. Appropriate wages for teaching contracts (lecturers) and Privatdozent:innen (‚habilitated’ private readers)


Along with the introduction of regular permanent employment contracts, the outrageous situation of research and teaching positions not subject to social insurance contributions must be fundamentally reformed. Teaching contracts account for a significant proportion of undergraduate teaching in universities but most lecturers are paid – if at all – far below minimum wage, or are purely symbolically compensated. We therefore demand that teaching contracts not be used as standard to meet general teaching demands. In those exceptional circumstances where additional teaching may be required, contracts are to be paid based on the qualification level and experience of the teacher. Freelance lecturers are not second class teachers and should therefore be acknowledged as university members with all of the concomitant rights.

An urgent reform must also be implemented to remedy the disgraceful situation of Privatdozent:innen, which is a symptom of the blatant and endemic disregard for qualifications and human resources in German universities. After an extensive period of education and professional experience, and normally well over the age of 40, habilitated academics must begin searching for a professorship, which takes on average six years and is often ultimately unsuccessful. In this period, they stagger from project position to guest professorship to scholarship to stand-in position, commonly interspersed by periods of unemployment. Together with earning their Habilitation, they have lost any entitlement to be paid for teaching and are forced to become unpaid lecturers in order to keep their Habilitation. We demand that the 5000-7000 Privatdozent:innen currently working unpaid in German universities be protected from precariousness and old-age poverty through an appropriate salary and through other wide-ranging support mechanisms.


We demand: Appropriate salaries not just for contracted employees but also for freelance lecturers and Privatdozent:innen.




5. Effective measures against inequalities and discrimination


The precarious situation of academic positions has wide ranging consequences for the reproduction of inequalities in the German higher education system. This particularly concerns all those who lack social security, who suffer from racist discrimination, who carry the burden of additional care work, who do not have a German passport, whose residence status is not stable, who have special needs or suffer mental health problems. Despite growing numbers of women enrolling in universities and completing their PhDs, only about a quarter of all professorships and leading positions in higher academia are taken up by women. Women scientists are disproportionately employed on fixed-term basis compared to their male colleagues. Black academics and PoCs are even less rep-resented in German universities and the same goes for people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. And again, the situation is not much different when we con-sider those who come from non-academic backgrounds, who have a history of migration or flight: they are more rarely appointed to professorships compared to colleagues who are not affected by structural discrimination. It is still mostly white men from the upper echelons of society that become professors – in fact, with a tendency of social closure rather than increasing permeation.

Why that is the case is clear: only those who are economically secure can afford to work on their academic career and survive the long period of qualification by means of fixed-term contracts. A habitus in line with such leading positions moreover increases the chances of advancement and success. Highly qualified women are often either excluded or leave the system at an early stage given that time-consuming care and domestic labour, the burden of which is still shouldered by women by about 75% in Germany today, is basically incompatible with academic work under the present conditions. International scholars who are mostly employed by German universities and research centres as visiting researchers are presented by German politicians as beloved figureheads and proof for Germany’s status as an open country of academic and research excel-lence. Yet for the majority of this globalised academic precariat it is virtually impossible to secure long-term positions and settle. Discrimination on the basis of age is also a structural feature of German higher education. In the dystopia of fixed-term employment, work and life experience are systematically devalued in favour of the alleged innovative potential of younger scientists (who also happen to be cheaper). Younger colleagues are thus addressed as profitable and exploitable ‘resource’ while elder colleagues are framed as ‘burden’. The already infantilising German term ‘academic offspring’ thereby aquires an additional discriminatory dimension.

Any democratic university must be committed to reducing, as much as possible, inequalities with regards to class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion and ability. Given obvious deficits in the German academic system, obligatory programmes that work against discrimination and for targeted assis-tance and promotion are urgently needed. This requires, in turn, a reform of the neoliberally ‘upgraded’ feudal university that facilitates the concentration of power around patriarchically structured professorial chairs. Matters of class, gender and race must become binding criteria for the appointment to particular positions. A purely symbolic politics of ‘diversity’, as currently in fashion, will not suffice as long as the structures sustaining the reproduction of inequalities remain in place.


We demand: The rollback of structures of inequality and mandatory measures against multiple discriminations in universities and research institutions.




6. Abolition of chairs and democratisation of institutions


We are working towards participative, cooperative and collegial structures in all areas of the university’s activities. Such structures allow for critique, engagement and co-creation, undermine hierarchies and prevent abuse. The current employment system is not only unfair but also blatantly undemocratic. It revolves around a fixation on professorships as the only regular permanent position in the academic system. The power of professors over other academic staff has continued to increase thanks to the ubiquity of fixed-term contracts for all other employees, the expansion of third party funding for research, and the stagnating number of professorships. The third party funding industry and the so-called excellence initiative or -strategy have first and foremost strengthened structural hierarchies and rampant individual dependencies within the university.

This has serious consequences which stand in complete opposition to an innovative and creative academic culture. It leads to an environment less conducive for discussions, to the loss of diversity and an unwillingness to engage in conflict. This in turn heightens pressures to conform to existing structures, research fields, academic discourses and procedures as well as to ignore instances of bullying, sexual harassment, plagiarism and data theft. We see full-time work loads being placed on part-time staff, professors overworking themselves through more and more unreasonable supervision duties, overwhelming tasks set by management, and an increasing emphasis on output statistics. In addition, this structure encourages power conflicts between competing “factions”, into which even temporarily employed academics are drawn, dependent as they are on their professors. This fixation on professorships and the complete lack of alternatives have a profound psychological effect on staff in dependent positions (and also the wider public) and prevent recognition of the system’s anti-democratic nature.

In response, we demand full and systematic democratisation. We must immediately rise to the defense of existing structures of academic self-administration against trends towards “entrepreneurial” university management, the appointments of university concultants and the privileging of research areas popular with third party funding. In the longer run, we aim at reforming these structures into a truly egalitarian system, with equal rights for all those involved (academic faculty, potentially with professors as their own group, students, non-academic staff) in all university bodies. Finally, democratising universities means abolishing the system of professorships and chairs in favour of democratically organized department structures that include a wide range of structurally equal and permanent positions (as is common in the pre-austerity Anglo-Saxon model, for example). Decisions about hiring, the allocation of funds and research focus must be reached through collegial discussion and negotiation. Collective self-administration, a differentiated division of labour and staff structure, and a mutual commitment to autonomy in teaching and research will not only work against hierarchical and fossilised forms of institutional interaction. They will also create a secure basis for individual researchers, teachers, and students to pursue their academic work, and thus to democratically guarantee its highest quality.


We demand: Democratisation of the universities and abolition of chaired professorships in favour of departmental structures.




7. Strengthen the core funding of the universities


The insidious transition of academic research towards dependence on third party funding is often correctly identified as a problem that is, however, not effectively combated. But it clearly constitutes a highly undesirable development: third party funding enforces precarity and undignified relations of dependency, inhibiting long-term perspectives. It encourages research monocultures and toxic competitive environments – and it constitutes a large-scale waste of resources considering the time and bureaucratic work that goes into applications even if they are rejected. The pressures weigh particularly heavy on those who still need to ‘prove’ themselves and develop their research profile. Additionally, the funding of group projects reduces the independence and originality of individual researchers; individual grants, on the other hand, frequently come with time limits that are incompatible with structural career exigencies.

We therefore demand that national and regional authorities set up university budgets that are sufficient in providing permanent, independent and properly paid research and teaching. Unpaid ‘invisible’ work (in the form of teaching contracts, mandatory teaching of Privatdozent_innen and stand-in professors) and generally increased workloads for regular employees cannot be the answer to the challenges related to rising student numbers. Employees on regular contracts are hardly more costly than ‘junior scholars’ on precarious fixed-term contracts. The financial argument against the mass removal of fixed-term contracts does not hold.

So far, federal autonomies have inhibited national cooperation in higher education. The lifting of federal restrictions to national and regional governments to cooperate in the field of education has provided us with a good starting point for the kind of reform we have in mind. Instead of the endless creation of new initiatives and competitions, the national government should commit to the long-term support of universities. It must be compulsory that this support serve the creation of permanent positions in numbers that account for both the actual number of students as well as the extent of supervision responsibilities.

Additionally, we propose reallocating the budget of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG) and the project budget of the Federal Ministry of Education Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF) to the institutions of higher education themselves. We further encourage integrating independent research centers more tightly with the universities. Within humanities and social sciences institutes, such reallocated funds would cover a large part of the budget for current support staff structures. A corresponding number of GRF/DFG personnel could thereby become re-employed by the universities. Alternatively, research funds could be used to finance permanent positions in university-connected institutions (as for example in the French National Centre for Scientific Research). The cooperation between universities and research networks such as the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres or the Max-Planck Society could be further expanded.


We demand: A reform of university financing, away from project-related third-party funding towards the expansion of core funding of the universities in ways that account for rising student numbers.