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Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz New Edition: Guide on Fixed-Term Contracts in Higher Education and Research

The German Trade Union for Education and Research (GEW) has compiled this Guide to offer practical orientation to employees around the application of the recently amended Fixed-Term Academic Contracts Act (Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz).

27.01.2022

For many people, the rules governing fixed-term employment, particularly the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG) are a mystery. But sooner or later – and certainly when their contract is about to expire – they will be confronted with the detailed implications.

We have compiled this Guide to offer practical orientation to employees and their representatives as they set about this implementation. Apart from explanatory notes on the provisions of the law itself, this booklet contains advice and concrete examples.

The new legislation on fixed-term contracts in higher education and research which entered into force on 17 March 2016 was a milestone. The GEW had placed the nightmare of fixed-term employment at higher education institutions and research institutes on the political agenda of the German government and parliament, the federal states, and the higher education institutes themselves, with a campaign for a dream job in academia (Traumjob Wissenschaft). The campaign began with the Templin Manifesto in 2010 and culminated in autumn 2015 with a nationwide week of action.

In January 2016, the Bundesrat – the upper chamber of the German parliament – gave its approval to the amended Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz (WissZeitVG) as adopted by the Bundestag, the lower chamber. The GEW would have preferred to see more rigorous and far-reaching reforms to the previous legislation on fixed-term contracts in higher education and research, but the amended Act did at least incorporate many of our suggestions. It creates a stronger framework for us to champion fair employment in the academic world.

We have no reason to rest on our laurels. This was borne out by the first evaluation of the amended Act of 2016 performed by Dr Freya Gassmann at the University of the Saarland with the support of the Max-TraegerStiftung and presented by the GEW in March 2020 to the 10th follow-up congress to the Templin Manifesto. The new law is having an effect … a minor one. That just about sums up the evaluation’s findings. Whereas in 2015, the year before the amendment, fixed-term contracts accounted for 90 per cent of academic staff at universities, in 2018 the figure was still 89 per cent, a drop by one percentage point. As for the duration of these fixed-term contracts (first contracts), Gassmann concludes from her analysis of advertised vacancies that the new law trigged a moderate average increase by four months – from 24 to 28.

And so, as far as our criticisms in 2016 are concerned, the chickens have come home to roost. Although the amended Act did pick up some important input from the draft legislation submitted by our trade union in 2015, it failed to define legal concepts, leaving the provisions vague and, as it now turns out, not very effective. If, for example, fixed-term contracts are not funded by third parties, they must serve the acquisition of a qualification and their duration must be appropriate. Unfortunately, the legislator did not set out what might qualify as a “qualification” or explain what duration would be “appropriate”. The principals and HR directors of higher education and research establishments were quick to adopt a very liberal interpretation of these unspecified terms.

This makes it all the more important that academics who are affected by the legislation, as well as works councils and staff committees, acquaint themselves thoroughly with the Act and bring their influence to bear on its implementation at their local higher education institution or research institute. We have compiled this Guide to offer practical orientation to employees and their representatives around the application of the new Act. Apart from explanatory notes on the provisions of the law itself, this booklet contains advice and concrete examples.

Every time a fixed-term contract is renewed, unsettling questions arise about whether there is any long-term future and what the conditions for that might be. For those not appointed as professors, permanent career prospects are still a rarity in the academic world. So by this stage, if not before, a proper grasp of the provisions on fixed-term contracts is essential in order to confront the often one-sided readings put forward from the employer’s perspective.

This new version of the Guide includes the additional provisions that were incorporated into the Wissenschaftszeitvertragsgesetz with the adoption on 25 May 2020 of a new piece of legislation on support for academics and students, the Wissenschafts und Studierendenunterstützungsgesetz, which took effect retrospectively from 1 March 2020. This latest, Covid-driven amendment to the Act itself, and also to the related ordinance (WissBdVV) of September 2020, has made it possible, on grounds of the pandemic, to extend the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts associated with obtaining a qualification beyond the previous 12-year cap (or 15-year cap in medicine).

Good advice is costly – but not for members of the GEW. Apart from reading this Guide, all our members can benefit from the personal legal advice and, if they need it, legal protection provided by the union. Our campaigns pay off, and so does membership.

Printed copies: 1,20 Euro. For orders of up to 9 copies, please contact: broschueren(at)gew(dot)de. Orders of 10 copies or more from the GEW Shop: www.gew-shop.de, gew-shop(at)callagift(dot)de.