Education International
Education International

GEW initiative on the verge of a breakthrough: reform of limited-term employment contracts in academia imminent in Germany

published 15 October 2015 updated 15 October 2015

Until January 2016, the German federal government plans to amend the Academic Temporary Contract Law (WissZeitVG), which provides the legal basis for the use of temporary fixed-term contracts.

This means the Government is now following the persistent initiative of the Trade Union for Education and Research (GEW), which has been campaigning for the reform of career paths and personnel structures in the academic world with its Templiner Manifest since 2010 ( www.templiner-manifest.de). The GEW started the ball rolling at the beginning of 2015 with its own private bill for reforming the Academic Temporary Contract Law.

Great uncertainty for German academics

Nine out of ten of the more than 170,000 academic staff apart from 40,000 full professors at higher education institutions are on temporary contracts – with more than half of them working on contracts with a term of less than one year. This conclusion is drawn by studies conducted on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research since the passing of the Academic Temporary Contract Law. The special labour law adopted in 2007 does not provide for any minimum terms to temporary contracts – and this unprecedented freedom in the limiting of employment contracts is frequently exploited by universities and research institutions in Germany. A lot of academics are left dangling between one temporary contract and the next, with only a few of them ultimately getting the only chance of a permanent position in the German academic system: a full professorship.

Bill does not go far enough

The escalating practice of temporary contracts not only disregards the needs of young academics, it also jeopardises the quality of research and teaching – with the GEA now no longer being alone in this assessment. So it is not surprising that the government bill for the amendment of the Academic Temporary Contract Law submitted in September 2015 picks up on the impetus provided by the GEW reform programme: permanent positions for permanent assignments, minimum standards for temporary contracts, reliable career prospects. Non-academic staff, for example, will finally no longer be covered by the Academic Temporary Contract Law and the terms of temporary employment contracts are to be oriented towards the qualification objective or the approval period for project funding in future.

However, the Federal Government has so far not dared to tackle a large number of important elements. The law does not set any clear minimum contract periods, thereby leaving loopholes for the employers. In addition, the block on collective bargaining remains untouched, with trade unions and employers continuing to be prohibited from concluding collective agreements aimed at regulating temporary employment contracts. The family policy component of the law also remains non-binding: whether a temporary contract is renewed or extended when academics take maternity or parental leave continues to depend on an arbitrary decision taken by the employer. Nor has the Government taken up the GEW demand for a tenure track for academics. “What we need, however, is not a ‘sticking plaster’ amendment but, rather, a genuine reform of the law that brings substantial improvement to the conditions of employment for academics”, explained Andreas Keller, Vice-Chairman and Academic Expert of the GEW.

Getting active for the “Dream Job in Academia”

The GEW has therefore called for an action week under the title of “Dream Job in Academia” in November 2015. This is intended to increase official pressure for the better protection of academic employees. In the week from 2 – 6 November, activities and events will be held at German higher education and research locations nationwide at which academic staff will raise their voices for fair labour law in the academic sector. Mobilisation for the action week has been in full swing since September 2015. The amendment of the Academic Temporary Contract Law called for by the GEW for a number of years now provides a unique opportunity over the next few years to bring about a lasting improvement to the employment conditions for academics in Germany.