In associative allusion to Reformation Day on October 31, 2020, we – meaning Dr. Amrei Bahr, PD Dr. Kristin Eichhorn, and Dr. Sebastian Kubon – launched the campaign #95vsWissZeitVG on Twitter. It met with an enormous response. For several days, researchers collected theses against the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act) and its problematic effects. Some criticism not only concerns the specific law but also addresses the precarious working conditions in academia in general. Far more than 95 theses were tweeted. We vetted the theses, took into account thematic parallels through summaries, sorted the results, and revised and edited them. The result is the following 95 theses. Many thanks to everyone who supported and took part in this campaign! If you want to read the theses in detail, you can find them, with mentions of their authors, under the hashtag #95vsWissZeitVG via Twitter search. Jan-Martin Wiarda also conducted an interview with Dr. Sebastian Kubon on the campaign (in German), which can be found here.
The quintessence of the 95 theses (in German as well) can be found as a guest post on Jan-Martin Wiarda's blog.
N.B.: In the theses below, we understand “science” in the broad sense of the term that includes all academic disciplines.
We cordially thank Natalie Roxburgh and Levi Roach for their most helpful support with translating the theses!
A. Consequences for Science and for Germany as a ‘Land of Ideas’
Waste of Taxpayers‘ Money and Human Resources
The WissZeitVG wastes vast amounts of taxpayers’ money. It forces the university system to lay off its most valuable investments – excellently trained experts – after twelve years at the latest due to irrelevant, randomly selected circumstances, and thus indirectly (due to a lack of permanent positions) imposes a recruitment ban. The WissZeitVG accordingly leads to a systemic squandering of competence by constant personnel turnover and renders the German academic system less competitive at a global level. This approach would be unthinkable in the free market economy due to its striking inefficiency: No company would dismiss its employees after 12 years, even though they have performed well, and the company has invested immensely in them and their qualifications.
The WissZeitVG prevents any kind of effective management because it forestalls the planning security such a management would require at various levels. Researchers lack predictability with regard to their careers and lives. This absence of planning security has an effect on students, as well, because it has consequences for the quality of courses and exams. In research, a lack of planning security prevents sustainable profile-building science.
The WissZeitVG often leads to a brain drain in science even before the individual maximum fixed-term contract period is exhausted due to the absence of predictability in the individual researcher’s life. Qualified academics move abroad because it takes too long to determine whether they will have a long-term perspective in the German university sector. This is, in itself, nearly impossible to explain to foreign colleagues – they are rightly stunned by the existence of such a law and its effects.
Due to the WissZeitVG, the rate of fixed-term contracts in research is much higher than in other areas with highly qualified personnel, where only the Part-Time and Fixed-Term Contracts Act, which sets much stricter standards, is applicable. In 2019, whereas just under 12% of employees in the free market were on fixed-term contracts, academia is taking a special path with currently 78% fixed-term faculty.
The WissZeitVG has the opposite effect to what was originally intended because it prevents permanent employment instead of limiting the number of fixed-term contracts. It ensures that administrations do not have to worry about building sustainable jobs. At this point, the law has become so emblematic of practices that allow to employ people for a certain amount of time only that critical remarks are often countered with attempts to explain the very indispensability of fixed-term contracts in academia. The counter-arguments themselves are often based on questionable premises (cf. Bayreuth Declaration of the University Chancellors).
The potential extension of the WissZeitVG deadlines due to Corona proves that everyone has known for a long time that the WissZeitVG harms researchers and does not help them. Only the existence of the law makes corresponding hardship provisions necessary. Since the extension is merely optional, researchers cannot be sure that their universities will prolong their employment contracts accordingly.
Consequences for Research Quality / Mainstreaming of Research
The WissZeitVG is damaging to everything that constitutes research excellence in a research community: the diversity of researchers and perspectives, diligence in research, university teaching, and a culture of collaboration, innovation, and sustainability.
High-quality research requires time and high-quality researchers require the freedom to explore new thoughts. Academic work needs the permission to run into dead ends and then start over again. Short-term chain contracts and the looming end of a career after reaching the maximum fixed-term contract period make this impossible for the majority of German researchers. Dealing with difficult issues that can be highly relevant to society, being innovative, seeking new paths, taking detours, and trying out different things are time-consuming and thus incompatible with contracts that have a fixed expiration date.
The time and career pressure built up by the WissZeitVG no longer leads to an increase of good ideas, to an increased willingness to take risks, and to high-quality output in research. It fosters instead the kind of research that reduces complexity in order to fulfill market or discourse demands as well as promotes eye-catching topics or results that may be more likely to attract funding. The WissZeitVG has led many to focus on mainstream topics in order to increase their chances of continuing employment instead of pursuing truly innovative research ideas.
Rushed research, as often demanded by the WissZeitVG time limits, is usually poor research. The sword of Damocles of short-term contracts and maximum fixed-term contracts in academia endangers result-neutral, truth-oriented research.
The WissZeitVG fatally reverses the logic of temporality and research: A research project does not end when the work is finished, but when project funding or employment contracts expire.
Time limits have a negative effect on project results, for the subsequent project must always be developed and applied for while the current project is still in progress.
Due to the WissZeitVG, many researchers have to write one application after another, using up time they would otherwise have available for research, teaching, or outreach activities. This is necessary because their employment contracts have a short-term expiration date, sometimes less than half a year.
Experience has shown that project culture often leads to applications for projects that have already been more or less completed, as the temporalities of project culture and good science do not match.
The WissZeitVG cements nonsensical and ineffective structures through constant changes in tasks and personnel. Hardly any project is completed by a team with the same members from start to finish because everyone is on the move.
BMBF (Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft und Forschung) and Stifterverband funding lines will remain without effect in the medium term, as the WissZeitVG prevents the perpetuation of acquired knowledge, cooperation, and institutional networking structures.
The lack of long-term perspectives and the constant changes have a negative effect on the ability of individuals to identify with the university that employs them. This hurts profile formation. At the same time, it leads to an adjustment of expectations and increases dependence on superiors.
The WissZeitVG has made both competitive thinking and lone wolves dominant in research. Long-term cooperation can only be established to a limited extent. Exemplary approaches are not pursued further after their initiators’ contracts have expired.
It should not go unmentioned that many young people endure the WissZeitVG because they are passionate, love their job, and want to teach and do research. This could lead to high quality in research and teaching were it not for the brake of existential fears, time limits, etc.
The WissZeitVG slows down research because it cannot be developed in the medium and long term. This is not only at the expense of the researchers but also costs more money for the system and generates fewer returns.
Fixed-term contracts are not helpful in building a long-term research data management infrastructure.
Research for an unlimited period of time also means that you can (co-)establish projects or research centers, set up study programs, supervise doctoral students, and generally supervise long projects. This is hard to do when positions are temporary and those who hold them will soon work somewhere else.
In academia, of all places, the idea underlying the WissZeitVG is not questioned, namely that ‘new’ and ‘young’ minds automatically equal more innovation within the system. This statement is more than debatable in its oversimplifying generalization, not least because it ignores the effects of system-immanent mechanisms that reward adaptation rather than innovation.
The Absurd „Up or Out“ Principle
The WissZeitVG nurtures the all-or-nothing principle of the German academic system: Those who do not receive a professorship will sooner or later drop out of the system due to the maximum time limit. However, many academics do not necessarily aspire to become tenured professors.
Many of the academics leaving the system due to the WissZeitVG limits are highly qualified. The quality gap between the few who get a professorship and the many who remain without it is minimal in areas with strong competition.
Not everyone will become a tenured professor. This is not a tragedy because universities need more than only tenured professors to function properly. Other members of the faculty also need a secure environment. If the basic security needs of these people are not met, this will damage a generation of researchers.
The Loss of Attractiveness of Academic Careers
Science and scholarship as professions have lost a great deal of their appeal due to the WissZeitVG. Hence, after excellent exams, many people reconsider the question of whether they even want to do a doctorate. There is already a shortage of qualified faculty in some departments, and universities are no longer competitive with the private sector in terms of the jobs they offer. Those who need professional security/prospects (subjective or existential) will sooner or later leave academia – no matter how good they are.
You cannot recommend an academic career to anyone. Uncertainty, work-life incompatibility, and competitive individualism are perpetual components of academic life due to the WissZeitVG.
The Act Undermines Meritocracy
The WissZeitVG ensures a long-outdated status quo. It denies the so-called ’new generation‘ real prospects and deprives the institutions and supervisors of the opportunity to employ the best.
Image of Science
The WissZeitVG ultimately reflects a disdain for science in politics and society. This hostility towards science leads to a partial disdain of researchers, not least in the current Corona crisis. In the best case, one is laughed at for being a highly qualified person working under such conditions. The WissZeitVG thus ultimately damages the reputation of German research institutions as employers altogether.
Due to the WissZeitVG, science loses legitimacy, especially among people who have little contact with scientific work in their everyday lives. Anyone discussing the WissZeitVG must discuss the social value of science and the willingness to finance it appropriately.
The Encouragement of Distrust and Nepotism, and the Creation of Artificial Competition
The enormous pressure of competition among academics with fixed-term contracts undermines cooperativeness – both friendship, which is needed for good mental health, and teamwork, which would benefit the entire institution. Many of the nicest colleagues are also those who apply for the same job. Sharing knowledge with colleagues? Better not, thanks to artificial competition facilitated by the WissZeitVG.
The WissZeitVG leads to selfish behavior that is damaging to academic discourse as well as the greater good. The system forces almost everyone to give up on their ideals at some point and to think only of their own career advancement. As a result, research as a cooperative project (which is productive) no longer matters.
A culture of mistrust is now deeply rooted within the academic community. The attempt to control everything, however, does not lead to a reduction of favoritism. Indeed, the more uncertain career paths become, the more people tend to seek loopholes and need connections to get ahead.
The WissZeitVG is essentially based on the assumption that young researchers can only stay motivated and agile by fixed-term contracts. This expresses the deep-rooted distrust in the individual academic’s willingness to work and to contribute meaningful research.
B. Ways in which the WissZeitVG is Flawed
Irrational Ways in which the WissZeitVG is Implemented
The WissZeitVG does not differentiate between full-time and part-time positions when calculating the duration of a fixed-term contract.
The common phenomenon of the part-time job based on the WissZeitVG suggests that work on qualification theses must take place in non-working hours (= free time). This means qualification is in reality not the actual reason for time-fixed contracts, as theses are not considered essential work tasks.
There is no guarantee that the job profile is designed in such a way that working on one’s own further qualification is actually possible during working hours or that contracts all name a percentage that makes qualification possible within the given period of time.
There are no realistically applicable legal mechanisms to ensure that a fixed percentage of qualification time in a contract is actually given in real life. There is, as of yet, no way to effectively prevent employees from having to prioritize other job-related duties over their qualification. The union of supervisor and superior in one person only further increases the likelihood of such abuse.
The concept of qualification of the WissZeitVG is extremely malleable, especially with regard to the postdoc phase. Many of the so-called qualification positions are actually positions that ensure the running of courses, which is a permanent task at universities, not a temporary project or a means for finishing a PhD or post-doc qualification.
The WissZeitVG has been an important element in the outsourcing of TVL skills in TVstud as it allowed employers to use a less restrictive time-limit framework than is provided for non-research employment. Non-research activities are also repeatedly reframed as research-related so that the WissZeitVG applies.
The WissZeitVG does not take into account the differences between disciplines, such as the time it takes to publish. The time required to publish a study can vary between two to three months to up to five years, depending on discipline.
The WissZeitVG is a complicated law. Many professors who are responsible for recruitment policy are not familiar enough with the complex legal situation. As a result, successful applicants may not be hired due to mistakes made by selection commitees or because potential employees are considered a risk since they could sue for permanent positions. This applies even in cases where people have themselves successfully applied for the third-party funding that pays their potential salaries.
There are serious differences between the interpretation of the law at different universities – e. g. with regard to the question of which periods of time are counted and which are not. This achieves the opposite of legal certainty; instead, it creates (unwanted) location-dependent advantages and disadvantages for employees.
It is also scandalous that periods of limited third-party funding without a qualification component, scholarship periods, and periods of doctoral study without related employment are without distinction regularly included in the maximum period of limitation alongside periods of qualification employment. The WissZeitVG is a law that allows cherry-picking within a system of asymmetrical power imbalance, to the disadvantage of employees.
The WissZeitVG provides an insane incentive to strategically delay the completion of the qualification in order to make the most of the 12 years, even if one could finish earlier. Since the law no longer applies once the qualification is completed and no permanent jobs are available, stalling turns out to be a reasonable career tactic.
The anxious hope for prolongation encourages image cultivation and schmoozing, rather than high-quality research and teaching. The WissZeitVG does not account for enthusiastically engaging in outreach activities. Instead, researchers are forced to prioritize the things that advance qualification or make the next contract more likely.
Paradoxically, there is no examination of research achievements in the context of renewals (or non-renewals). Based on the WissZeitVG, good work is not a criterion at all. What counts is whether or not one has time left to once again be given another time-fixed contract in accordance with the law.
The WissZeitVG is part of a system that does not promote commitment to teaching and thorough academic work. Actually, both can have a negative impact on careers, for which (much) research output is the primary ingredient.
The WissZeitVG forces you to think about what will happen after the end of your academic career before it even starts.
The WissZeitVG is a key reason why the decision of who gets to remain in academia permanently typically comes rather late in life (in your mid-40s). The law significantly delays this necessary selection process.
The WissZeitVG regards the post-doc period as a phase, not as a profession, despite the fact that the doctorate already sufficiently certifies one’s qualification for scholarly work.
C. Consequences for Students
Discontinuity of Contacts at Universities
Due to the WissZeitVG, students hardly have any stable contacts to teaching faculty members at universities. In many cases, their theses cannot be supervised by the teachers they know because their contracts have expired. In other words, due to the WissZeitVG continuous mentoring of students is almost impossible. Individual counselling is therefore ineffective. This places first generation university students and lecturers who are committed to helping them at a particular disadvantage.
Jobs that expire at the end of the semester lead to coursework and papers often having to be corrected by people who are no longer employed and thus not remunerated for their work, which is technically illegal. Colleagues or immediate successors in post often cannot step in because they are already overburdened or not (yet) sufficiently familiar with the subject matter.
Prevention of Quality Assurance in Teaching
The WissZeitVG contributes to the prevention of sustainable quality assurance of university teaching. Substantial high-quality teaching is made difficult because it requires experience. Teaching concepts must be tested and, if necessary, adapted, and new teachers are always forced to start from scratch.
Developing university pedagogy is in fact another permanent task, but contracts in the field are time-fixed via WissZeitVG.
The WissZeitVG makes teaching and committee work damaging to careers in the long term, because they tend to be considered less valued than publications and securing grant income.
D. Consequences for Researchers
Exploitation of the Researchers’ Commitment
The willingness to work overtime in the hope of not having to leave the profession is also exploited in form of posts with high teaching loads: The WissZeitVG indirectly helps increase the teaching load of (the few) permanent posts. Because these are so rare and researchers do not want to be forced to leave their profession, academics agree to teach 16 to 24 hours a week – a teaching load that, if all related teaching duties such as preparation or marking are included, easily comes to much higher working times than the regular 40 hours.
Those who engage in writing external funding applications in order to secure their own job have no guarantee that their commitment will pay off: co-authors of applications must expect that the personnel departments will not issue or renew their contracts, if they fear lawsuits associated with Kettenverträgen (‘chain contracts’).
The WissZeitVG encourages the widespread practice of calling employees with years of experiences “Nachwuchs” (junior). Their work is understood to be nothing more than a self-serving investment in their own qualification theses when, in fact, it should be recognized as relevant achievements in research and teaching that profit society as a whole.
The WissZeitVG causes permanent faculty to be regarded as a disruptive factor in the university’s operation, as they are considered too expensive and cannot be dismissed as easily. The expertise of experienced faculty is not valued enough.
Researchers commute to university locations on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays on temporary contracts without being able to build up sustainable networks outside the ivory tower. Social and political commitment as well as outreach activities on site are thus made impossible.
If an externally funded project has to be completed, its demands take priority. Otherwise it is considered a failure. As a result, the already scarce time for working on one’s own qualification alongside the project becomes even scarcer or a free time activity.
The Risk of the Abuse of Power by Superiors and Administrations
The working conditions in academia are not reliable either in terms of a secure, appropriate remuneration based on competences and experience or in terms of their expected duration: if the contracts do not follow one from another without interruption, it can happen that a university deprives faculty of all accrued levels of experience and starts paying them a beginner’s salary despite several years of professional service and the experience that goes along with it.
The only perpetuation that the WissZeitVG ensures is that of the asymmetry between all those who have a lifetime professorship and the so-called "young researchers" who do not.
Within this asymmetry, the WissZeitVG promotes toxic work relationships and fuels conflicts of interest to the disadvantage of employees since superiors (who are often also their supervisors) can always threaten to refuse, or indeed refuse, further funding should conflicts occur.
Obstacles Concerning the Transition into the Private Sector
The WissZeitVG makes a smooth transition and career changes to the private sector quite challenging. Frequent job changes, varying job titles or even gaps between two contracts are seen as a stigma on the CV outside the ivory tower.
The WissZeitVG provides an incentive to regularly renew fixed-term contracts up until a point at which the employees are seen as both too old and overqualified to start alternative careers. The current structure systematically loses the best students in a year.
The WissZeitVG forces you to put all your eggs in the same basket and hyper-specialize. In the academic world, the acquisition of skills that are in demand outside the university sector is regarded as a hobby at best. They also take up the time needed to complete those tasks considered academic qualifications. Finally, investing in the acquisition of non-research related skills is frequently interpreted as a lack of loyalty and willingness to make the necessary sacrifices for a successful university career.
Effects on Private Lives
The WissZeitVG is hostile to children and families. It leads researchers to postpone starting their own families or to give up such plans entirely due to the lack of job security. For many, the decision is one between EITHER a research career OR family. In the worst case, however, they end up without job or family.
Anyone who has children despite these obstacles is put at a disadvantage by the expectation to work without boundaries. The WissZeitVG punishes parents (and especially mothers) and prevents fair access to, as well as participation in, academic life. Those who choose to have both a family and a job in academia live in constant dissatisfaction and with a great sense of guilt.
The WissZeitVG is burdensome for young families as long as the family provision, which allows for the extension of the period by two years for child, is only optional for employers.
Families lack a fixed place to live and are constantly uprooted by enforced mobility. While others in their mid-30s buy a house, employees without tenure are, on the one hand, unable to apply for the necessary loans. On the other hand, they never know where they will end up in the future, so investing in real estate is unadvisable.
The WissZeitVG puts those affected at risk of poverty in old age. As a result of all the part-time contracts, employment gaps and long periods of uncertainty, fewer contributions are made to the public pensions. Additional private pensions are often not an option for the same reason.
The WissZeitVG does not take into account personal circumstances: caring for relatives, crises such as the death of friends, etc. There are no clear parameters on how care duties regarding relatives affect the contractual time limit. Faculty are thus forced to care for a loved one AND to keep their research output high, work on their qualifications, etc. in order not to exceed the maximum time limit they can work on fixed-term contracts for.
The current funding of jobs is too focused on predoctoral training (= cheap labor) and disproportionately neglects the steps after that (= false promises).
Mental Health and Health Costs
The WissZeitVG in its current form is an expression of the ideology that only those who are anxious will work properly. This view contradicts the current state of research in motivation and work psychology: fear blocks creativity, while security, meaning and self-determination ensure higher and better work performance.
The WissZeitVG is a symbol of the current distrust of researchers, as the legislation presumes that pressure and existential fears are an effective tool to motivate faculty to get their jobs done. The opposite is the case: these fears do nothing but distract people from their actual duties.
The WissZeitVG triggers serious fears for the future. Regular short-term contracts cause fear (of survival). Fear makes you ill! The WissZeitVG damages employees’ health and fosters burnout and depressive disorders. At the same time, the stigma associated with mental illness that may put an end to the hope of becoming a civil servant (Beamter) one day prevents those affected from seeking out professional help.
E. Bureaucracy, Costs for Administration and Social Security Funds – Research on Unemployment Benefits and Income Support
The Erosion of Labor Law
The WissZeitVG makes it hard for employees to stand up for their own interests because committee work does not go well with constant personnel change. The same goes for union organization.
Fixed-term contracts allow employers to evade current laws regarding dismissal, since people do not have to be dismissed: contracts expire automatically, and renewal requires a new contract. Even particularly vulnerable people, who could not be dismissed for good reason in permanent jobs (pregnant women, people with illnesses), are not entitled to contract renewal.
The WissZeitVG encourages unpaid overtime based on the desperate hope that ‚achievement‘ will lead to a tenured professorship – a hope that will not manifest for the majority of temporarily-employed researchers.
The WissZeitVG can indirectly be instrumentalized as a disciplinary measure and as an extended (or permanent) probationary phase as you have to constantly prove yourself worthy of contract renewal.
Strains on Social Security Funds
Despite their high qualifications, researchers are regularly threatened with unemployment due to the WissZeitVG. If contracts with short durations and scholarships alternate, the entitlement to unemployment benefits is reduced or even completely unattainable due to the brevity of the employment relationships.
Due to the WissZeitVG, the Central Support Fund for Non-Performing University Teachers (Zentrale Unterstützungskasse für Notleidende Hochschullehrer, ZUK) of the German University Association will not become unnecessary, on the contrary.
Work relationships often end before qualification targets are reached, meaning that qualification work is completed during a period unemployment – even if the original job continues to exist. Research in Germany is regularly ‘funded’ by unemployment benefits and social benefits because gaps between contracts have to be bridged in this way. This puts an unnecessary strain on social security funds.
The long-term psychological costs of the WissZeitVG put a strain on the public health system.
The WissZeitVG Produces Unnecessary Bureaucracy
The WissZeitVG leads to a great deal of bureaucracy because new employment contracts have to be issued and application procedures have to be carried out all the time. Part of the bureaucratic burden is the uncertainty caused by university administrations: recruitment may be postponed or prevented for fear of legal action; procedures are sometimes discontinued due to legal uncertainties.
Researchers have to register as unemployed repeatedly three months before their contracts expire, simply because they have not yet received the new contract that has often already been promised, but not yet issued due to administrative delays. This leads to unnecessary bureaucracy.
F. Consequences for Work Equality and Diversity
Publications have a direct impact on career opportunities within the university sector. But who can publish well with fixed-term contracts, temporary cover jobs or unpaid private lectureships? The uncertainty that the WissZeitVG creates is something you have to be able to afford. As a result, less privileged groups will only make it to lifetime professorship in exceptional cases.
Due to the uncertainty brought about by the WissZeitVG, a disproportionately high number of women are leaving the academic community. The WissZeitVG makes it possible to put parents at a disadvantage, especially women during parental leave. Sometimes it may only be possible to take time off at no extra cost. But what if a substitute is required?
The WissZeitVG also concerns questions of classism and equality. If research careers remain highly uncertain, they will be less likely be pursued by people coming from working-class families. The WissZeitVG thus promotes class differences: who can afford to be underpaid or even unpaid? Under these circumstances, the German academic community can never be a meritocracy. Incidentally, the law makes it even harder for doctoral students from non-academic backgrounds to explain the ‘university workplace’ with its idiosyncratic ‘rules’ to their family.
The consequences of the WissZeitVG are racist. Marginalized groups have fewer chances in academia.
The WissZeitVG allows the maximum contractual limit to be extended in the case of severe disability, but expressly does not guarantee any such entitlement. This puts researchers with disabilities at an extreme disadvantage.
The negative effects of the WissZeitVG with regard to diversity cannot be absorbed by quota regulations. The problem here is that many people who are actually highly qualified and who could also contribute more diverse perspectives and questions will not take the risk to embark on the long journey of academic survival.