German postdoc reforms paused after outcry at research careers plan

Attempt to balance interests of employers and researchers pleases no one, and weekend Twitter storm forces the plan ‘back to the assembly hall’

March 27, 2023
U-turn sign painted on road

It began just before 9am on Friday and ended just after 5pm on Sunday. A high-profile plank of Germany’s long-awaited research employment reforms had a shorter life than a bad hangover.

The attempt to strike a balance between universities and researchers pressing for more stable careers failed despite six months of consultation and coordinated promotion by ministers. The proposed amendment sparked a weekend Twitter storm that subsided only when Sabine Döring, state secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, tweeted on Sunday 19 March to say that it would be withdrawn and taken “back to the assembly hall”, although it remains unclear just how much of it might be scrapped.

Central to the changes is a halving of the longest possible postdoc contract from six years to three, with a non-binding minimum “target” of three years for doctoral student contracts. “We didn’t ask for people to be pushed out sooner, but for people to get a permanent perspective earlier,” Amrei Bahr, a researcher at the University of Stuttgart and campaigner against precarious careers, told Times Higher Education.

Alongside thousands of protesting tweets, more than 1,500 professors signed an open letter dismissing the proposals as a “political reinterpretation” rather than an actual amendment to the law. The letter was posted under the hashtag #ProfsfürHanna, a reference to the high-profile #Ichbinhanna anti-precarity campaign.

“The incredible thing was we had all this solidarity and support by all the different status groups in the German system. Everybody from PhD students to postdocs to professors, everybody said this is going to be very bad for German academia,” said Professor Bahr.

“This is extraordinary,” said Andreas Keller, deputy chair for universities at the Education and Science Workers’ Union. “I can’t remember any other example, and this shows we, the #Ichbinhanna movement, the movement for permanent jobs, have power against the government. We have forced the government to withdraw this proposal.”

German universities pushed back against the idea that the amendment alone could improve career paths. “More permanent positions require first and foremost more permanent funding for the basic financing of higher education institutions and a change in the financial structure of higher education institutions (especially the ratio of basic funding to third-party funding),” the German Rectors Conference (HRK) said in a statement.

The HRK senate said it also had “considerable concern” about specific aspects of the amendment, including the three-year postdoc contract cap, which it said was “clearly too short” a period for staff to qualify for professorship, such as by winning external funding or working abroad.

The first sign that the long-awaited amendment was coming arrived as a cryptic tweet from Kristin Eichhorn, another researcher at Stuttgart and originator of the #Ichbinhanna campaign, on the morning of Friday 17 March. “Winter is finally over! This afternoon, the first flowers for the #WissZeitVG reform will peep out of the ground! Stay tuned! #Ichbinhanna,” she tweeted, using hashtags for the law and campaign.

Like the tone-deaf video that sparked the #Ichbinhanna campaign – an animated short depicting Hanna, a young researcher, as an expendable staffer rotated out of a university – the publicity for the reforms provoked a strong reaction from researchers. “There were no demonstrations; there were no conversations. It was Twitter activities,” said Dr Keller.

Jens Brandenburg, who chairs the group of regional science ministers who oversee much of Germany’s higher education funding and law-making, said ministers would take the pushback “very seriously” and that there would be further debate before the bill was finalised.

“I guess there won’t be too many changes to the amendment. Maybe, though, the government will try to compensate the reduced fixed-term periods with a programme creating more permanent positions, especially for postdocs,” said Michael Holscher, professor of university and science management at the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer. “That is one of the things where we actually have to do something,” he added, citing the roughly 80 per cent of full-time, non-professor academics on temporary contracts in Germany.

The proposed plan to tweak the labour law carve-out for scientific staff also included a softening of the ban on collective bargaining, potentially giving unions the chance to push for better terms for postdocs, and another non-binding “target” that student employees should be given contracts of at least a year.

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