Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Kristin Eichhorn, co-initiator of #IchbinHanna, on fair working conditions in research and the failed reform proposal in Germany.

On Friday, March 17, The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) published a reform proposal that promises to improve working conditions in research. This was followed by a massive wave of criticism and protest from scientists across status groups and disciplines. In this interview with Teresa Völker, Kristin Eichhorn, co-initiator of #IchbinHanna, a campaign for fair working conditions in research, assesses the reform proposal and explains how working conditions in research can be improved.

Could you give us a brief summary for our international audience? What is the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG – German Act on Fixed-Term Scientific Contracts) and what is the reform proposal about? 

The Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG) creates a special law for fixed-term contracts in academia in Germany. This means that longer fixed-term contracts are possible than in the rest of the labour market. According to the current legal situation, it is possible to be employed on a fixed-term contract in research for six years before and six years after the PhD for the purpose of qualification – whereby the term “qualification” is so vague that general professional experience is also covered. The post-doctoral qualification phase is particularly problematic: it usually involves a habilitation or other achievements that are considered a prerequisite for a professorship (there are differences depending on the field). The result of these extensive fixed-term options is that people in academia move from contract to contract for twelve years or more. If they do not succeed in obtaining one of the few professorships or permanent positions available, they usually face the end of their academic careers in their mid-to-late 40s and are forced to reorient themselves professionally. The qualifications acquired during the postdoctoral phase, however, do not usually count for much there, but serve primarily to obtain a professorship. It is therefore nonsense to claim that this is where qualification for the general labour market takes place. It would be much easier to switch to the private sector directly after graduation, or after a PhD at the latest. In fact, the system currently tends to undermine workers’ rights, as there is, for example, no protection against dismissal when contracts simply expire, and workers are kept in a constant probationary phase through permanent fixed-term contracts.

The reform proposal of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is intended to improve this situation. Essentially, on the one hand, a minimum contract duration is now proposed (to prevent short-term fixed-term contracts). On the other hand, the maximum fixed-term contract for postdocs will be reduced from 6 to 3 years and there will be more room for negotiation in collective bargaining.

What are the main points of criticism and what does #IchbinHanna demand?

Kristin Eichhorn (Photo: Universität Paderborn/Simon Ratmann)

We criticise the draft because it lacks the intended systemic change. While the minimum duration of first contracts is in principle a step in the right direction, the reduction of the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts to 3 years sends the wrong signal. This is intended to increase the pressure to create permanent jobs. Apart from the fact that it is questionable how these are to be financed, the possibilities for third-party funding have not been limited. This increases the pressure on staff, particularly Postdocs, to raise third-party funds in order to secure another temporary (!) position after the three years.

If we want to get out of this overheated competition, which is already wasting too many resources, we need clear prospects for a reduction in the length of tenure. After the PhD, academic training is over. After that, there is only further training within the profession. That is why we demand the complete abolition of fixed-term contracts for Postdocs. After the PhD, permanent employment must become the norm. And importantly, it must be possible to develop in these positions. At the moment, there is only a choice between fixed-term qualification positions on the on hand and permanent positions with no possibility of advancement on the other. Training and fixed-term employment must be decoupled. For this reason, the term “qualification” in the WissZeitVG must be limited to PhDs, and measures are needed that will certainly lead to the creation of permanent positions and entirely new types of positions.

What would be the consequences of implementing the reform proposal for students and staff and Germany as a location for research? 

We are currently observing that academic careers have become very unattractive and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified personnel in Germany. This applies in part even to PhDs and increasingly to subjects without direct competition from industry, such as most of the humanities. With the current draft, this situation is likely to worsen and more people will leave academia because they see no prospects for themselves. This will be particularly true for groups that already have difficulty breaking into academia because they cannot afford long periods without prospects, periods of unemployment, constant relocation, etc: Women with family aspirations, people with physical limitations, people with a migration background or a lack of financial reserves, etc. In terms of equal opportunities, then, this is a bad day and a step backwards for research.

What are the alternatives for creating better working conditions and future prospects in research? 

We need a completely new personnel structure in German research. Recent scandals involving abuse of power and embezzlement of funds (e.g. Fraunhofer Society) show that the highly hierarchical system is damaging research and promoting undesirable developments. At the moment, everything boils down to the professorship: only then are you considered a full-fledged scientist, you have a permanent position, earn significantly more and have leadership responsibility. All others are considered junior staff (“Nachwuchs”) – even in their early 50s! – and dependent on their immediate supervisor. 

That’s why we need real departmental structures with equal participation of all academic faculty. This means: the professorial majority must fall (it ensures that professors have the majority in all committees, no matter what their share of the total staff is). There must be more flexible types of positions where all faculty have the opportunity to develop – without having to be on permanent contracts. I could imagine, for example, that in permanent positions you could review your focus every five years or so. If someone wanted to do a postdoctoral lecture qualification, the tasks could be adjusted for a few years to make this possible, while others would take on teaching or other tasks – depending on need and desire. It would then be possible to apply for a professorship from a permanent position, so that the time needed for such a procedure (usually at least 1.5 years) could be well bridged. This could also counter the criticism that three years are not enough to habilitate or obtain a professorship: This should no longer take place on temporary positions at all!

What is the way forward? How should the reform proposal be responded to? 

We expect that we will now be asked again for feedback before the draft law is prepared. However, the key points are so widely opposed by the scientific community that major protests are likely. I expect a tough fight. We can still steer the draft in the right direction. Now it is time to build up the pressure!