Since around the middle of June 2021, academics in Germany have been posting reports of their experiences and criticisms of the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG) or German Law on Fixed-Term Contracts in Higher Education and Research1 under the Twitter hashtag #IchBinHanna.
The campaign against fixed-term contracts and the exploitation they lead to takes its name from a video put out by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), which explains why it is necessary to work early career scholars to the point of burn-out in order keep the business of academia running, or at least, to stop it from getting, and I quote, ‘clogged up’ (verstopft). (The original has since been taken down, but it can still be found on YouTube.)
It is good to see such a lively discussion taking place on this topic (one that has been going on since November 2020 under the hashtag #95vsWissZeitVG, organized by Amrei Bahr, Kristin Eichhorn, and Sebastian Kubon). As late as February 2020, my discontent about my job situation—expressed in public—was rejected by a number of the tenured professors around me. ‘It has always been like that’, they claimed, and suggested that the fact I could not find a job was due to my location. However, as Ariane Leendertz has again impressively shown, it has definitely not always been so. The number of people employed on fixed-term contracts has grown enormously, and postgraduate programmes such as the Graduiertenkollege (research training groups) are producing large numbers of doctoral candidates without offering them any prospect of a career in their field.
Unemployment and precarity have clearly been growing for years, but the pandemic seems to have been the straw that, for many, broke the camel’s back. Almost eighteen months of online teaching—which requires much more time-consuming preparation—while juggling childcare and working from home, lack of access to libraries and archives, little chance of Covid-related extensions to contracts, and, and, and… Against this background, it is simply outrageous that Anja Karliczek (CDU), Federal Minister of Education and Research, could recently state in the Bundestag that currently, ‘absolutely nothing is happening’ at German universities.
Tradition over Reform
The uncertainty facing those in the so-called Mittelbau of academia (doctoral candidates and postdocs), as revealed by #IchBinHanna, is not something that many were aware of before embarking on their degrees. Even having parents who went to university—which was often enough to guarantee success in the past—is no longer enough today. And many of the Hannas still have this sort of background. Although my parents were neither teachers nor professors, I would not be here without their financial support. With teaching contracts (Lehraufträge) paying a mere 500 Euros per semester (to cover preparation and follow-up as well as actual teaching), even at so-called elite universities such as the LMU Munich, nobody can afford to eat and pay their rent.
Insider knowledge is vital—even if some of the ‘rules’ that are often explained to us don’t seem quite right, as we find when we look at the careers of some of those who have gamed the system successfully. So, for example, we are told that after finishing our doctorates, it’s vital to change universities to avoid giving the impression of not wanting to leave our ‘cosy homesteads’. Only a lengthy stay abroad on a CV, we hear, will qualify us for prestigious third-party funding. But even this money usually is only available to those who are already employed by an institution. Before we even get to this stage, we have to have our dissertations published—but only by the ‘right’ publishers—which can cost 3,000 to 6,000 Euros out of our own pockets. All these are powerful gatekeeping mechanisms.
What this shows is that the WissZeitVG has exacerbated problems that existed even before its introduction. These include pressure to conform and an insistence on traditions that keep alive a system in dire need of reform. The habitus of the ‘German professor’ is completely alien to many people, especially to those from working-class families. And yet the chance of getting one of the increasingly rare permanent professorial posts (W2 or W3) seems to be available almost exclusively to those who can embody, or at least convincingly imitate it.
Part of the etiquette that leads to success in academia is keeping quiet and never drawing attention to any personal or structural issues. Never raising any suspicion of ‘soiling the nest’—after all, members of a hiring committee might remember you in the future, even if the criticism has nothing to do with your own workplace. The fact is that far too many employees never report abuse of power, whether by their boss or their supervisor—who are often the same person anyway. As the German term Nachwuchs (offspring) suggests, the so-called next generation of scholars should ideally be infantilized. Like children who have to be taught a lesson. Who have to learn. Who cannot and should not make decisions.
The use of this term, Nachwuchs, is not surprising, however, if we remember that in German, we also call our doctoral supervisors our ‘doctor father’ or ‘doctor mother’. The German system is so deeply rooted in the patriarchy that it is accepted as normal, and hardly noticed.
This system has already left many behind. Often, anyone who tweets on #IchBinHanna as a postdoc has, after years of financial uncertainty, only made it this far because their skin colour, health, gender identity, or other factors have not been disadvantageous, and other means of financial support have been available.
As Hanin Hannouch and others point out, the debate is once again threatening to drown out many voices altogether.
Anyone who wants to stay in Germany without having a German—or at least an EU—passport, is likely to be ground down even more quickly by the WissZeitVG because residence permits are linked to employment.
And anyone who needs a visa is permanently subjected to xenophobia. Even in the tweets on #IchBinHanna there are frequent comments about non-German colleagues: they should be grateful they are allowed to stay in Germany; or, if they find things so bad here, why don’t they just go somewhere else?
BIPoC colleagues are constantly exposed to everyday racism. Many now tweet under the hashtag #IchBinReyhan (thanks to academic, activist, and rapper Reyhan Şahin) in addition to #IchBinHanna.
Addressing the subject of systemic/structural racism in German academia, we still encounter a great deal of ignorance, anger, whataboutism, and white fragility.2 Surely someone who teaches subjects like African American history can’t possibly be a racist?! The Netzwerk Wissenschaftsfreiheit (Network for Academic Freedom) has more than 500 members—mostly professors who have long held permanent positions, or are retired—who want to fight back against these ‘ideologically motivated restrictions’ on their academic work. (In the meantime, a counter-initiative has also been set up under the same name.)
My purpose here is not to sharpen the battle-lines between those on fixed-term contracts and those who are permanently employed, or to conjure up a generational conflict (even if the latter is likely to be a factor in the debate). One positive thing to note is that a few of the voices which tweet on #IchBinHanna acknowledge their own positions of power within the system, and want to use them for change. Yet it is not quite clear where we want this frustration that has accumulated under the hashtag to go.
Going on strike and negotiating with politicians are the obvious ways to overturn the WissZeitVG, or to force change. A panel organized by the GEW trade union (panel of unions) to discuss these issues on 1 July was made more diverse in response to pressure exerted by some, which meant it showed a little more clearly how many different levels of exclusion there are in German academia.
Yet this, too, demonstrates that the problems of the German academic system are bigger than #IchBinHanna. If we approach reform in the wrong way, we will at best find only superficial solutions. What we need is a much more serious rethinking of how universities and research function in this country. Otherwise we will end up with a Mittelbau that is on permanent contracts, but filled with white, heterosexual, abled, cis men and women from the German educated middle to upper classes. Two steps forward, one step back.
- This law limits the length of employment contracts for doctoral candidates to a maximum of six years before the completion of their dissertations, and for postdocs to a maximum of six years after completion of their dissertations. The vast majority of academics in Germany are employed on fixed-term contracts, often for only one or two years at a time, and even postdocs often have only a 50 per cent contract. Tenured posts hardly exist, so for many the only goal is to secure one of the increasingly rare full professorships.
- The author has opted to not capitalize the word „white“.