The misery of the time limit at the universities

“At universities, precarious employment remains normality”, the Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote on 17 March 2017 an article on the current situation at European universities, summarizing the criticism of the union education and science on the still high fixed term share of the scientists employed there concisely.

In fact, the bare numbers give little cause for exultation. After all, the “Federal Report on Young Researchers” pointed out in 2013 that the employment relationships of scientific university staff in EU countries have been characterized for years by a nearly 90% fixed term share, increasingly shorter contract periods and excesses such as short-term chain contracts. Precarious employment in science seems to be the norm.

The policy vowed at the time improvement and adopted in March 2016, the Science Time Contract Act, according to which employment contracts are still allowed for third-party financing, but otherwise only for the purpose of qualification may be limited, with the limitation of the desired qualification has to be “appropriate”.

Step in the right direction

This was a step in the right direction, particularly with regard to promotions, as the strong increase in doctorates in recent years had also pushed up the number of short-term contracts; now the terms have been better adapted to the doctoral project. With regard to the employment of the scientists, however, the new regulation scarcely contributed to clarification, since “appropriate” is a conceivably expansive term and the law, in particular, created new problems of interpretation instead of clear minimum contract periods. After all, what is a qualification is still a matter of interpretation and thus ultimately subject to legal clarification. In any case, the universities as academic employers obviously continue to use all possibilities for time limitation and redefine so many routine tasks for “qualification” to reduce the running times, so that stipulations of a few months are still not uncommon.

This persistence of the problem is impressively demonstrated by the new Federal Report on Young Researchers published on 16 February 2017 (BuWiN). According to him, the rate of fixed-term contracts for scientists under the age of 45 remains at 93 percent, the same level as in 2010 and seven percent higher than in 2005. However, the academic occupations are affected differently by the time limit: least of all the professors (9.7 percent), the scientific staff almost continuously (87.1 percent) and even the so-called “teachers for special tasks”, who are to bring their practical experience, even to 57.1 percent. Although the individual universities deal with the instrument of the time limit quite differently, their rate is only less than 70 at one single German university and up to 99% otherwise.

But even if some Rectorate argues just as economically as a company and only too gladly uses the limited possibilities offered to it, the responsibility for the misery lies not primarily with the universities themselves. The government funds allocated to them have indeed grown considerably in recent years, but For the most part they are awarded for a limited period of time as well as the strong increase in third-party funds. So the lender merely hands the buck to the university management. However, they are not completely off the hook since they have limited their basic funding to 75%.

The current Federal Report describes impressively the adverse consequences of this “delusions of limitation” for those affected. Lack of professional establishment and uncertain financial situation make it impossible for many young scientists to do something like family planning and force them indefinitely to postpone possible children’s wishes. The further academic career remains uncertain for a long time, because the high number of scientific middle-level employees only faces a small number of professors positions due to the only 10% of professorships in science staff. A considerable number of junior scientists hopes for years or even decades in vain for a permanent position and sometimes does not know beyond the age of forty, whether he will stay once at the university. The victims of these conditions are not only those directly affected themselves, but above all those who are hardly ever talked about in the entire discussion about time limits: the students. Because the small number of professors and the high proportion of unskilled scientific professionals results in just that inadequate quality of care, which is often complained by many students again and again.

It may therefore be interesting to see what the evaluation of the new legal situation planned for 2020 will bring – the employees, but above all the students.