The mid-level staff at German universities and research institutions are rumbling for reasons that are all too familiar to us. However, the organisation and networking of mid-level initiatives remains low, with many of them working in isolation from each other. The structure that could link mid-level initiatives, specialist social campaigns and actors in current local disputes to collective, nationwide action is currently lacking. In this announcement, we aspire to begin the process of designing a networking. Our expectations are high: we seek to at least organize joint public relations work as well as our campaigning capacity, perhaps even our capacity to strike. Should the Mittleblau be able to bundle and multiply its many voices, it would make it much easier to cooperate with professional societies, professors and students who are willing to support us.
For years, Germany’s universities have been characterised by chronic underfunding and precarious working conditions. With the introduction of the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (German Act on Temporary Academic Contracts) in 2007, fixed-term contracts below the professorship level became the rule, as did the compulsion to raise the funds for one’s own continued employment. Short-term, chain and part-time contracts prevent even medium-term life planning for „young“ academics. At the same time, a professional commitment far above the average and the greatest possible geographical mobility are expected. This situation has steadily worsened in recent years. According to the Union for Education and Science (GEW), 90 percent of all academic staff at universities are now employed on fixed-term contracts, and more than half of all temporary contracts have a duration of less than one year. The few who have permanent contracts, on the other hand, usually have such a high teaching load, which means that research is no longer possible for them.
Since there is no prospect of any fundamental changes to these conditions, mid-level initiatives are currently emerging in professional societies and at numerous universities and research institutions. These initiatives serve to raise awareness regarding the problematic situation many mid-level faculties face in the committees of the individual disciplines (e.g. German Sociological Association, German Political Science Association, German Educational Science Association) as well as negotiating agreements on better contractual practices directly with university administrations (e.g. in Frankfurt/Oder). The student bodies are also fighting back due to the hair-raising working conditions of the Mittelbau, which have also had a serious impact on them; indeed, under the prevailing conditions, high-quality teaching and adequate supervision are almost impossible. Resistance is commonly formed between the Mittelbau and students, which leads to protest events (e.g. university trade union unter_bau in Frankfurt/Main; AStA Uni Hamburg).
Reforms without substantial improvement
Politicians are now reacting to the protests and there is recognition across a broad range of social discourses that something has to change. Unfortunately, the reforms that have been implemented do not bring about any improvement. On the contrary, the latest higher education policy decisions continue to focus on boosting competition between higher education and research locations as well as on the promotion of a scientific market with intensifying competition between highly precarious academics. It’s true that the Act on Temporary Scientific Contracts, which was amended in March 2016, is supposed to put a stop to the steadily decreasing duration of contracts. However, it does not break with the logic of fixed-term contracts themselves and maintains the special status of academics in the qualification phase under labour law. The continuation of the Excellence Initiative, which was decided in June 2016, also elevates inequality between universities and thus between students towards a social goal. The elite project, the „Excellence Initiative,“ establishes an artificially staged permanent competition between the universities and promotes their financial inequality with reference to an increase in performance that can supposedly be achieved through this. Although one billion euros are expected to be used to create a thousand new tenure-track professorships by 2032, this is only a drop in the ocean when considered in view of the glaring staff shortage, and still fails to create stable prospectives below the professorship.
At universities, the economisation of education and research has left few unscathed. The lack of basic funding is compensated for with an army of 100,000 private lecturers and teaching assistants – according to an estimate by Die Zeit – who provide rudimentary teaching for an hourly wage far below the minimum wage or completely free of charge. Despite their high qualifications, private lecturers also have very limited career prospects on the non-university labour market. Even professorships are often limited in time and do not automatically guarantee that they will remain in academia. At the same time, the central bureaucracy is being further inflated by the Länder and rectors. Additionally, administrative staff are exposed to an increasing, senseless bureaucratic workload due to the stringing together and accumulation of fixed-term part-time contracts; technical staff and self-employed education workers outside the universities are negatively affected by wage dumping and insecurity; student employees in their early stages at univeristies even obtain first-hand experience with precarity and underpayment.
For students, the high turnover rate, overwork and exploitation of teaching staff leads to poor supervision conditions and limited ability to plan the content of their studies. This situation further limits the goal of cross-class equality of opportunity, since under adverse study conditions, students from non-academic backgrounds in particular leave university, if they feel they are unsupported and overwhelmed.