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Germany: Research video row

EducationWorld August 2021 | International News

Precariously employed German academics have forced the country’s research ministry to take down a video that argued that temporary academic contracts are good for the economy and prevent one generation “clogging up” scholarly positions.

The outpouring of online fury under the hashtag #IchbinHanna — named after a fictionalised junior researcher featured in the video — is the culmination of years of simmering anger in Germany about a system that stagnates scholars on temporary contracts until their forties or even fifties, which campaigners say forces them to choose between academia and raising families.

Researchers seized on a video, originally created in 2018, that shows animated researchers flowing in and out of a university and making the case this “fluctuation” in employment promotes “the power of innovation”.

Researchers responded on Twitter over the course of a week with a stream of personal stories that showed no sign of letting up, describing professional and personal lives lived in perpetual uncertainty. “Researchers don’t know where they are going to stay until they are 45-50, so they postpone families,” says Kristin Eichhorn, a literature researcher at the University of Paderborn and one of the organisers of a campaign launched last year to overhaul German research careers.

Fixed-term contracts are pervasive across academia globally, but in Germany, critics say, the situation is particularly extreme. According to a 2020 study, 78 percent of academics in the country are on fixed-term contracts, in comparison with just 8 percent of workers in the wider economy. Making the situation worse, critics of the government say, is a law introduced in 2007 that decrees that researchers cannot spend more than 12 years on temporary contracts after starting their doctorates.

The intention was to force universities to give researchers permanent contracts after this period. What tends to happen, however, is that after 12 years on fixed-term contracts, academics are told “your time is up” and, in effect, forced out of academia, explains Dr. Eichhorn, who is herself in a temporary position. Some researchers have successfully sued their institutions into taking them on permanently, she adds.

More than a decade of gruelling insecurity favours the already privileged, campaigners say. “Career planning in this system is a matter of luck and especially disfavours groups which need a higher degree of stability, e.g, researchers with children, women, people with disabilities and internationals,” says a statement from N2, a network of doctoral researchers.

The video appears to have aroused such anger because instead of suggesting that this churn was problematic and a sign that the law had backfired, it made it clear that the ministry was perfectly happy to “use people to get the best impact” and then spit them out “to the market”, says Dr. Eichhorn.

Since then, the ministry has been forced to remove the video, saying it no longer reflects working conditions in German academia. But it has continued to argue that it is normal for fixed-term contracts to be offered to workers in their “qualification phase”, and that not all junior researchers could or should stay in academia in the long term.

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