Updates on the proposed WissZeitVG reform

This blog post is intended to provide resources and information about recent developments regarding the proposed reform of the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG). As the public and political debates around the topic are happening in German discussion panels and major German news outlets we provide the information here in English primarily for the community of non-German speaking students and postdocs in Germany. Be aware that the post is being updated and extended regularly, just scroll down to the end to see the latest developments. You can send us links that we can add here or also your general feedback via connect[at]leibniz-postdoc.de with the subject “WissZeitVG”.

Background: the WissenschaftsZeitVertragsgesetz has been introduced in 2007 to clarify the conditions under which it is possible to hire “early career” academics. In English the meaning of the spectacular compound word WissenschaftsZeitVertragsgesetz would be something like: ‘federal law on fixed term contracts in science and academia’ (we will use the established short form WissZeitVG for the remainder of this post). Generally, one needs to be aware that Germany has stronger labor laws compared to, for example the US or the UK. Hence, in Germany short, fixed-term contracts (that are so common in academia), are relatively rare in virtually all industry sectors. For an introduction on the law that also includes practical information and a bit of the finer details we recommend the “Guide on Fixed-Term Contracts in Higher Education and Research” provided by the Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW) which has been updated in January 2022. Originally, the law was introduced to increase the proportion of academics on permanent contracts, particularly as Germany lacks an established tenure-track culture. This lack of a tenure-track system, in turn, meant that the so called junior professorships, that were introduced at roughly the same time, were (and are) in many cases also lacking a long-term perspective. To a certain extent the discrepancy between the intended and the factual consequences of the law are caused by the German federal system that grants the federal states (“Bundesländer”) a lot of autonomy in questions regarding research and education. In addition, the universities tend to claim independency from this kind of federal regulation based on the principle of academic freedom (“Wissenschaftsfreiheit”). In the context of the WissZeitVG reform this means that the federal law (“Bundesgesetz”) seems to be designed to “force” universities and research institutes to create more permanent positions indirectly through more restrictive rules for postdoc employment. However, as the past 15 years have already shown, this is not very likely to create the desired effects without introducing rules that somehow enforce those desired effects (e.g. more permanent positions) directly at the levels of the states and the individual institutions.

What is the WissZeitVG about: In brief, under the current law early career researchers are allowed to be employed 6 years before and 6 years after they receive their doctorate. In principle, the strict rules only apply if the contracts are paid from universities’ or research institutes’ household money and not if the PhD students or postdocs are employed on third-party funded project money. There are also some exceptions as to how the 12 years can be prolonged for childcare duties or other personal circumstances. Periods of “postdocing” abroad are usually also not included. However, how different institutes and universities apply those rules to calculate how much “remaining time in the system” a researcher has, is often inconsistently and not transparently done.

What happened now and why: Over the past several years, the pressure on the system to improve the situation has slowly and steadily intensified. Calls for reform have regularly been voiced, but they became loudest during the last two years. Particularly in June 2021, when early career researchers were voicing their discontent during the social media campaign #IchBinHanna, the calls were even heard outside of the ivory towers (see reporting via Deutsche Welle or Times Higher Education). Hence, a reform of the law was agreed upon when the new coalition was formed in fall 2021 and explicitly mentioned in the coalition treaty.

On Friday, March 17th 2023, a draft describing the core pillars of the reform was released from the BMBF (Federal Ministry for Education and Research). In this draft there were a couple of suggested amendments to the law, but the most impactful, and also the one that was most surprising (and shocking) for the academic community, was the intention to reduce the aforementioned “maximum 6-year-after the doctorate” rule to a “maximum 3-year-after the doctorate” rule. Over the following weekend, the uproar on social media was so intense, that BMBF state secretary Sabine Döring announced that the draft would be withdrawn just 51 hours after it had been presented to the public (tweet 1, tweet 2). On Wednesday, March 22nd, member of Bundestag Jens Brandenburg also announced an open discussion round which will be live-streamed for everyone interested to continue the discussion around the WissZeitVG reform. This event is set to happen on Thursday, March 30th, 10 AM (tweet 1, tweet 2).

A remarkable development was the solidarity movement that led to a support letter which has been signed by more than 2000 German professors (#ProfsFuerHanna). They also published their letter in English [Link is defunct at the moment, but will soon be restored – G.K., 2024-05-15].

1st Update, March 24th 2023

A protest was organized at the BMBF in Berlin today. Hundreds of early career researchers from all over Germany participated.

2nd Update, March 28th 2023

Times Higher Education has a news piece about the developments around the WissZeitVG (it’s paywalled but you get 3 free articles per month for just setting up an account). Some quotes by Andreas Keller from the article are in the embedded Tweets below.

3rd Update, March 29th 2023

Most important update from today: a joint statement by several German postdoc associations (inlcuding the Leibniz PostDoc Network) has been released. You can find an English and a German version online.

A second important update: The streaming link for tomorrows’ open discussion panel organised by BMBF has been announced. You can tune in on March 30, 2023, 10 AM (CEST). We hope that there will be subtitles for international postdocs.

4th Update, March 30th 2023

Unfortunately, the BMBF panel discussion on limits of fixed-term contracts for postdocs and the WissZeitVG reform happened today without any representative of doctoral researchers or postdocs. The recording of the discussion (in German, of course) can be viewed here.

Thankfully Michael Gerloff (doctoral student at MPI for Molecular Genetics) provides a video with subtitles.

5th Update, March 31st 2023

We have added a new blog post summarizing the reactions to the BMBF panel discussion.

6th Update, April 1st 2023

Tanya Bhuiyan (postdoc in molecular biology at University Freiburg) provides a comprehensive summary of what happened since the BMBF released its “Eckpunktepapier zur Reform des Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz” almost two and a half weeks ago. (It’s a longer thread, you’ll have to click through to see all of it).

7th Update, April 14th 2023

Not much is happening due to the Easter holiday break. Still the broad support of #ProfsfuerHanna continues to make news. See this piece from last Monday published on BR24 (in German). According to this piece, over 3000 German professors have now signed the letter (if you missed it so far, you can read the English version here).

8th Update, October 12th 2023

A lot has happened since the last update on the blog post, among many other notable events and developments we published a joint statement with other postdoc associations in July 2023. There will be another separate blog in the coming days explaining the more recent developments on the political stage. Stay tuned. 

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