How Germany is destroying its academic future
On the 17th of March 2023, the BMBF (Federal Ministry of Education and Research in Germany) proposed a reform of the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (more on that later) to make academic careers even worse than before. Although enjoying the education in Germany to the fullest degree until now, I really don’t see any reason why anyone wants to stay any longer in academia in Germany. Germany is destroying its academic future.
What’s the situation with Germany’s academic future?
So I was growing up in Germany, enjoyed primary school, high school, and of course university. I finished my study programme and even wrote a PhD, everything in Berlin actually. I was always happy here, as Germany is a wonderful place to do science. Studying is more or less free and until recently, you had all the time in the world. After my magister thesis (comparable to todays master) I already came into contact with the so-called Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG).
The WissZeitVG was put into place in 2007 and was intended to regulate the time limit of employment of scientific staff at universities or research institutions. The idea was, that these scarce positions would rotate every six years, so new graduates have a chance of getting a position, that often enabled them to pursue a higher degree. It was intended, that you could work at a university for six years after your degree to achieve a PhD and then another six years to pursue a post-doc phase. This law was already a pain, as it is not very family friendly.
What is new?
So on the 17th of March, the BMBF offered a proposition for a reform of the WissZeitVG with the intention to improve the work conditions for scientific staff. In their proposition however, they propose to shorten the post-doc to only three years, which makes it basically impossible to compose a habilitation or finish a longer project in that time. This means after three years of post-doc, you either need to find a permanent position (e.g. tenured professorship) or rely on third party funding for the rest of your life. Oh wait…
In another paragraph, they also want to restrict the time of third party funding as well. That is, if you have already used up your time in the WissZeitVG. I am not 100% sure what they mean by that, because they do not use clear language in the proposition, but it sounds bad. Really bad…
Why this is a bad thing for Germany
So why does this bother me? Well, I am exactly at the position now, that I have archived my PhD and am about to start my post-doc phase. I reckoned that I might do some projects for the next six years. By then, I might be able to land a tenured position. If not, I might do third party funding, so I am able to “stay in business” at least. Although this way I would have some freedom, it was not a good place to start with. See, I have a nine year old son and he is just in the third grade. I don’t want to move with him constantly.
The viewpoint from a department chair is also not very attractive. It takes time to get used to new staff and train them. Now, after six years everything works smoothly and I have to go. Although by now I am really good at what I do. If a chair wants to hire a new position, they will probably go for a PhD student rather than a post-doc. A PhD student at least can stay for six years. So opportunities for post-docs will reduce drastically.
Working at a university has already many problems (long working hours, moderate salary, to much administrative work, etc.). Why should one stay in academia or Germany, if working conditions, salary and many other things are way better elsewhere. While Germany is offering free education and pumping all that money into it, graduates will go somewhere else. Either industries or other countries will profit. Don’t get me wrong, I love the university and would love to work there permanently. But if new laws make it tremendously difficult to plan ahead (although they explicitly say that this is their purpose), one can only hope for luck.
[Update] After massive criticism and a very quick movement by some scholars to protest, the BMBF has retracted the proposal to allegedly work on it further. We will see with what they will come up next.