“Poor working conditions cause Sweden to lose pace with top level research”. This was a recent headline on an article in one of Sweden’s main newspapers. The piece was written by the Royal Academy of Sciences – not by a trade union. Since then, the working conditions of academics have also been on the agenda in Sweden, in part thanks to the Swedish Association of University Teachers (SULF). SULF’s General Secretary, Git Claesson Pipping, attended the 5th Follow-up Congress on the Templin Manifesto of the German Education and Research Workers’ Union (GEW) on 2 April in Berlin, Germany.
Fixed term contracts: Not just a German problem
At the Congress, the issue of fixed term contracts was raised. In Swedish higher education, one fixed-term contract is frequently followed by another. This can evolved into a career – from promotion through professorship – of typically 15 years of fixed term contracts, said Claesson Pipping. Why do institutions of higher education and research treat young academics that way? Her answer was definite: “Because they can”. At least, they still can; but protest against this practice is increasing in Sweden as well.
“A frequent problem in Germany is that funds for research projects are granted only for a short period of time – and this is why only short term contracts are being granted,” explained a colleague in the audience. “It is the same in Sweden,” replied Claesson Pipping, “and universities frequently use it as a pretext to justify short term contracts. But that is a pretext: In the private sector of the economy, there are also fixed term orders but, nonetheless, there are also permanent employment contracts.”
Drop-off in female participation
It is no surprise, then, that most Swedish researchers leave the academic system after their PhD. The lack of predictability, precisely at the time when academics seek to start a family, leads women, in particular, to avoid working in higher education and research, said Claesson Pipping. Yet she is optimistic: “We are on our way to tackle these things within the Swedish academic system – and I believe you are doing the same in Germany.”
Her lecture during the Follow-up Congress was GEW’s contribution to EI’s worldwide Unite for Quality Education campaign. Andreas Keller, Vice-President of GEW and Vice-President of the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), announced closer cooperation between GEW and SULF in the future. This is based on their common feeling that quality education and decent working conditions are two sides of the same coin.
Decent working conditions were behind the GEW’s move in October 2013 when it called on higher education institutions and research institutes funded by the state to adopt a code of conduct and a sustainable human resources strategy and to provide a support programme for reliable careers in academic life. The GEW made its plea in its Koepenick Appeal which outlined a course of action that should be included in the new Federal Government’s policy of higher education and research in order to fundamentally reform the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz. The WissZeitVG is a national law that regulates fixed term contracts for academics in higher education institutions and research institutes.
The Grand Coalition’s first 100 days are over and the question posed at the Follow-up Congress was: Has the Appeal been heard by the Government in Berlin?
“The Koepenick Appeal has arrived in the centre of Berlin – in politics and in every faction in the German Bundestag,” said Tankred Schipanski, an MP with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). However, concrete needs for action have to be explored first. Accordingly, the matter has not (yet) been settled.
“It cannot be done within 100 days,” argued Dieter Rossmann, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) faction in the German Bundestag. “The WissZeitVG will be amended, this is evident for the coalition. By the next meeting of this kind, our coalition should have made considerable progress.”
Still on the theme of working conditions, Ralph Lenkert of Die Linke (Left Party) said: “Permanent tasks need permanent funding and permanent employment. Today, the best people switch to major enterprises because, in academic life, you never know what will happen next year. This is bad for higher education and research.”
Kai Gehring, MP of Die Grünen (Green Party), appealed to the factions within the government to stop waiting for more data and evaluations. “It is obvious that the academic junior staff’s working conditions are the German academic system’s weak spot. Considering a fixed term rate of 89 per cent, you cannot talk about planning security.” This is why governing politicians must show a clear commitment to a fundamental reform of the WissZeitVG, he said.
In 2010, the GEW passed the Templin Manifesto. Initially, it was met with a chorus of indignation by the establishment. One complaint, by George Turner, former Senator of Higher Education and Research in Berlin, warned that the implementation of GEW’s demands for plannable careers and reliable perspectives would amount to a blockage of careers in higher education and academic life. Since then, some things have has changed, said GEW’s Keller. In 2014, Peter Strohschneider, President of the German Research Foundation (DFG), complained about a lack of options for young researchers, too. And he remarked: This is also a problem for the quality of research and teaching.
However, trade unions, non-professorial teaching staff, Templin Manifesto initiatives, and works councils in the Federal states have continued to put the working conditions of higher education teachers and researchers on the agenda. For instance, a task force of unionists and academics in the region of Brandenburg have managed to enforce improvements in the draft for a new Higher Education Act, ensuring, for instance, that there should be guaranteed periods of personal training within the framework of qualifying positions. Although the regulation about permanent tasks requiring permanent employment could not be included in Brandenburg, it was included in the draft for the amendment of the Higher Education Act in Hamburg.
The regions of Brandenburg and Hamburg have shown how to get a federal state’s government going, Keller stated at the end of the conference. A reform of careers in academic life remains on the agenda. “It is amazing that, today, we don’t discuss ‘whether’ anymore but ‘how’,” said a delighted Vice-President of the GEW. Yet there is still a lot to do: The GEW will continue to contribute to the campaign for the Templin Manifesto.
Unite for Quality Education is a campaign of Education International (EI), the voice of teachers and other education employees across the globe. Join the 30 million members EI represents (through its 400 affiliated organisations in more than 170 countries and territories) to demand that quality education for all remains at the top of the agenda for a sustainable, peaceful and prosperous future.