Germany’s ‘exploited’ student assistants waiting weeks to be paid

Early taste of academic precarity reported in biggest-ever survey of student-employees, although rectors’ conference questions reliability of a union-commissioned study

January 27, 2023
Source: iStock

The slippery first rung of the academic career ladder can offer a bitter taste of precarity for many student assistants in Germany, a study has found.

A survey of 11,000 assistants commissioned by Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW), one of Germany’s largest academic trade unions, found contracts typically lasting less than half a year, with chains of short-term agreements common. Conditions varied, but more than 16 per cent of respondents said they had worked for weeks without payment.

“There’s between 300,000 and 400,000 students working at universities. Each of them depends very much on their professor, on their institute. For some of them, the working conditions are definitely exploitative, while for others, they might be totally acceptable,” Jonathan Dreusch, the labour conditions lead for the Free Association of Student Bodies, a union umbrella organisation, told Times Higher Education.

“They are basically the foundation of the whole university system.”

The survey found that students who choose to work for their university tended to come from more comfortable backgrounds. “You have to be well enough off to do these jobs, because the pay is just so little,” said Lukas Leslie, a master’s student at the University of Bremen and former student assistant, who worked on the survey.

“I would have two or three contracts at once to get a certain amount of financial security,” they said, referring to their time as a political science bachelor’s student at the University of Hamburg, where they led tutorials on analytical methods.

“It was kind of like being in a teaching position but with much worse pay and the contracts would only run over the lecture period.” Did it put them off an academic career? “I’m still a little bit on the fence. I really like doing research, it’s kind of my passion. I know the working conditions are really hard, especially in Germany, so I’ve been thinking of not going into academia first – finishing my master’s degree, doing something else entirely and then maybe coming back to it.”

THE Campus resource: Design an early career researcher survey that spurs positive change

The GEW ran the survey because accurate data on student assistants was made a prerequisite for early discussions on admitting them into collective bargaining negotiations – the ultimate goal for many campaigners. Universities, however, have cast doubt on the reliability of the data.

“It is not clear to what extent the findings are based on firm and empirically sound data, especially since the study understandably aims to increase the pressure on the employers in this labour dispute,” said Peter-André Alt, president of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz (HRK), the German rectors’ conference, adding that the report “does not provide a sufficient basis for an objective discussion”.

The survey, which was run and analysed by the Institute for Work and Economics at the University of Bremen, also found that almost 17 per cent of respondents had worked without a written contract and that many worked sick days or did not take holiday, sometimes at the request of their superiors. The findings have been presented to the university employers’ association.

“If the rules of labour law are not observed in the employment of student assistants, such practices must be stopped immediately,” said Professor Alt. “Contrary to what is suggested in the study, violations of labour law regulations at universities are an exception to the rule. If violations do occur, they must be stopped, and the individual or structural causes analysed.”

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Reader's comments (1)

"Universities, however, have cast doubt on the reliability of the data." No surprise here, really. Germany is a terrible place for academics when it comes to job security and conditions, for early and mid-career academics alike. Most posts below a tenured Chair are precarious, not to mention that these are often directly dependent on a Chair (no departmental system). Obviously, the top dogs with a Chair, who are benefiting from this exploitative system, do not want it to change much. The arrogance of German professors (I am generalising obviously) is legendary. It is only trumped by the insularity and ignorance of the "Kultusminister" of the German Laender responsible for education.