Young Academics Heading into an Uncertain Future

A future at the university?
A future at the university? | Photo (detail): © fotolia

Young academics at universities in Germany often work under precarious conditions, with many surviving by switching from one short-term contract to the next. A legal reform aims to change this.

Just one number is all that is needed to illustrate the problem: 90 percent. Nine out of ten academic staff at Germany’s universities and academic institutions are employed on fixed-term contracts – in many cases with terms of under one year. “It is like sweet poison”, says one of those affected. “Every year you get a new contract, and every time you have some vague hope of getting a permanent position.”

Germany’s academic scene is proud of its dynamism and the sense of new beginnings that was generated in particular by the Excellence Initiative, a Federal Government competition for funding that was launched in 2005. All the money and all the academic policy innovation has been unable to remedy a fundamental weakness in the German higher education landscape, however – and indeed has actually made it worse: academic careers in Germany are left for the most part to chance. “The dream of an academic career is in crisis”, laments Helmut Schwarz, president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. A 2015 survey of nearly 7,000 young academics conducted by weekly newspaper Die Zeit found that 81 percent of them are thinking about switching careers due to the lack of job security and the poor chances of advancement.

Number of professors stagnates

As a matter of fact, it was above all the Excellence Initiative that exacerbated the bottleneck: the newly-created graduate schools for PhD students and the clusters of excellence – research networks engaging with a broad range of subjects – produce large numbers of highly-qualified young academics, all of them hoping for a chance at the big prize: a tenured professorship. Most of them do not make it. In 2005 there were just shy of 120,000 academic employees at below professor level, a number which had already risen by 35,000 just five years later – whereas the number of university professors remained stagnant at around 20,000. “Probably no generation before them had such great opportunities”, says Helmut Schwarz, talking about young academics in Germany, “and yet none found themselves under such high pressure, either.”

While the GEW (Germany’s trade union for education and science) has been calling for change for years and launched a campaign for more permanent posts back in 2010 in the form of its “Templin Manifesto”, it has taken politicians far too long to recognize just how dramatically skewed the situation is. It was not until December 2015 that the Bundestag – Germany’s parliament – passed the revised law on fixed-term academic contracts, which many experts accuse of having made the worst shortcomings possible in the first place.

When first introduced in 2007, however, its intention was quite the opposite: the law was supposed to help as many PhD students as possible to embark on an academic career and to ensure that petty employment law barriers would not prevent them from making the leap into other exciting research projects. It was also intended to reduce the misuse of fixed-term contracts by limiting the number of years academics could be employed on them: namely to twelve years, plus a few more if for example the academic in question had children. The only thing that had any real impact, however, were the lax regulations governing short-term contracts.

Contract term to reflect research project duration

Observers disagree about whether the law will at least prove beneficial in practice the second time around. The law stipulates minimum contract terms in order to prevent successive short-term contracts being awarded over the course of several years. The contract terms are to reflect the duration of research projects or the time needed to complete a PhD. While German Rectors’ Conference President Horst Hippler said after the Bundestag’s decision that the changes are fine as far as the universities are concerned, the GEW’s assistant director Andreas Keller commented that “something well-meant is not at all the same as something well-done.” Although he sees some progress, the crucial regulations governing fixed-term contracts are still formulated “too vaguely” in his view. Federal Education Minister Johanna Wanka disagrees, saying that there are no loopholes in the revised law. “In future, universities will have to provide very precise reasons why someone is to be employed on a short-term contract.”

One thing is obvious: the law can merely help manage the shortage but is unable to create a single additional permanent post. This in turn is supposed to be remedied by another initiative of Minister Wanka’s, which is the subject of heated debate. She has offered the country’s federal states a billion additional euros, spread over ten years, if they use the money to generate more tenure track professorships. A tenure track means that young academics are given a temporary professorship which becomes a permanent post after several years, assuming their work is assessed positively. Another point of controversy concerns whether posts should only be created at universities or also at non-university research institutions. Certainly the posts will need to be established in line with binding regulations that are known in advance – by way of signalling to researchers both at home and abroad that university careers in Germany will no longer be arbitrary and a matter of chance in future.