They work in their dream job at the university, pursue their scientific interests, research and teach. And if they stick with it for a good decade, they have the chance to permanently establish themselves in the scientific community.
But it is precisely this perseverance that is an agonizing stalemate for many young scientists. Especially since the professorship desired by the majority remains a bottleneck: around 270,000 scientific staff positions are offset by just over 36,000 full-time professorships.
Two evaluations now provide information on the situation of temporary employees in science – one prescribed in the Science Time Contract Act (WissZeitVG) on behalf of the BMBF and a kind of counter-evaluation from the perspective of those affected by the network for good work in science (NGAWiss). Both were released on Friday.
“Those who hold out for a long time get to the top. And above all: Who can afford the precariat in the long run,” Amrei Bahr just said in an interview with the Tagesspiegel. Today the philosopher is a junior professor at the University of Stuttgart. During her doctorate and postdoc period, however, she had a total of eight contracts and had to live on ALG1 in the meantime.
Even those who are not absolutely mobile and willing to move every few years can hardly manage to hold out, said Bahr. She is a co-initiator of the Twitter outcry
The statement that friendships and partnerships suffer from temporary employment after graduation and that they are exhausted by constant commuting is rated as correct or somewhat correct by 90 percent. 72 percent affirmed this for the time before the doctorate. “Expiring contracts and unclear prospects for permanent employment create enormous uncertainty,” the authors state.
This also has an effect on the desire to have children: although twelve percent of the women and men surveyed say that they have never had one, 38 percent have already “put it on hold because of their work at the university”. The remaining 50 percent do not see themselves hindered in family planning.
The NGAWiss team also emphasizes that the scientific quality of academic work is adversely affected by the practice of fixed-term contracts: 72 percent of fixed-term employees are at least sometimes reluctant to submit scientific criticism because they do not want to spoil career opportunities.
In the case of permanent employees, the figure is 59 percent. The fact that non-scientific activities make up a large part of everyday work and this is reinforced by the dependency on superiors also leads to a loss of quality, it is said.
When it comes to the core question of whether the time limit is appropriate for the qualification goal in the current employment contract, the picture is mixed: less than half of the doctoral students (46 percent) complain that this is not the case for them, 40 percent have enough time and 14 percent don’t know yet.
Dissatisfaction is greater when it comes to habilitation: 56 percent do not consider the duration of their contract to be appropriate. It is also revealing that a good quarter of those who have completed their habilitation according to the employment contract have already given up on their goal. And 49 percent state that they have no qualification goal according to the contract.
The evaluators on behalf of the BMBF – InterVal GmbH in cooperation with the HIS Institute for Higher Education Development – also asked young scientists whether their contract terms were appropriate for their qualification goal. The results are similar to those of the NGAWiss: 40 percent of all those surveyed in the qualification time limit according to the WissZeitVG consider it realistic to achieve the agreed goal, around 50 percent consider the time to be too short.
The BMBF evaluation is based on surveys of personnel administrations, data from employment contracts, interviews with “stakeholder groups” and with experts. While the NGAWiss is particularly exploring the human dimension of the time limits below the professorship, the university researchers are primarily providing the federal government with key figures in order to assess the effect of the law that has been in force since 2007.
In principle, the WissZeitVG has since regulated a special right to fixed-term contracts for academic and artistic mid-level faculty, i.e. for employees below the professorship: They can be employed before and after their doctorate for a total of six years for a limited period of time, for doctors this is due to the long specialist training after the Doctorate nine years.
This 12 or 15-year rule for the maximum fixed-term contract was extended by six months during the 2020 pandemic for doctorates, habilitations and other qualifications.
With the amendment to the law that came into force in March 2016, the term of employment contracts for scientific staff at universities or non-university research institutes must be “appropriate” for the desired qualification. However, the universities have a great deal of leeway when it comes to defining the qualification goal.
When it comes to employees in third-party funded projects, the duration of their contracts should be based on the approved project period. These are essentially the innovations of the law, which should counteract the “fixed-term nuisance” that has been criticized for decades with clearer rules.
According to the BMBF evaluation, this has so far only been partially successful. According to the latest available figures, 81 percent of the full-time scientific staff at universities below the professorship are still employed on a temporary basis. The rate is 93 percent for non-doctoral students and 63 percent for those with a doctorate. In 2013, the average was 83 percent.
It looks better with the third-party funding limitation, said chief evaluator Jörn Sommer from InterVal GmbH when presenting the results to the BMBF: Here the terms of the contracts matched the project duration in 70 percent of the cases.
A step forward is undoubtedly that around half of the 16 federal states have now passed university regulations according to which employment contracts must be concluded for at least three years before the doctorate. For postdocs, however, this remains the exception. At the same time, guidelines for “good work” in science now exist in three quarters of the countries.
All of this means that the proportion of contracts that run for less than a year is only a third to a quarter, said Sommer. In 2015, this was still the case for more than half of WiMis when they signed their first contract.
The contract terms had “extended noticeably after the amendment to the law,” it says. In 2015, academic staff at universities still had average terms of 15 months (without a doctorate) and 17 months (with a doctorate), by 2017 they had risen to 21 and 22 months, respectively.
But from 2019 onwards a drop can be observed again: in 2019 the average was 20 months and in 2020 it fell by a whole 2.7 months. However, this decline could be due to the pandemic, write the experts from InterVal and HIS-HE.
“The fixed-term rate for scientific staff is still far too high,” said Federal Education Minister Bettina Stark Watzinger (FDP). “We want it to drop, especially among postgraduates.” The minister announced another amendment to the WissZeitVG based on the evaluation results – and a conference on June 27 with all groups affected at the BMBF.
NGAWiss has already asked those affected what could improve their situation. 84 percent say that permanent positions at the latest after the doctorate could (much) improve the situation. Three quarters call for longer minimum terms for fixed-term contracts – and just as many call for the abolition of the special right to fixed-term contracts in the WissZeitVG.
The Education and Science Union (GEW) criticized, among other things, that “short-term contracts dominate, which run for an average of one and a half years”. This finding is “not only dramatic for the scientists concerned, it also undermines the continuity and thus the quality of research and teaching,” explained the deputy GEW chairman and university expert, Andreas Keller.
The GEW deputy called on the federal legislature to further develop the science contract into a “science permanent law”. “It must be clearly regulated that time limits are only permissible if they promote an academic qualification such as a doctorate.”