German Universities

#uberized or #unbezahlt? Or both?

Posted by Cerstin Mahlow on March 08, 2019

On Twitter (mostly in German, though), there are some great discussions these days triggered by sometimes very personal, sometimes very pointed tweets tagged with #unbezahlt ("unpaid") and #unbefristet ("non-permanent") or more recently #FristIstFrust (roughly: "fixed-term is frustration"). Some years ago, the GEW ("Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft," the educators' union) encouraged members and non-members alike to share what they like and don't like in academia using the hashtag #TraumJobWiss (short for "dream job academia"). Most of the tweets are in German and most of them are rather critical if not downright sarcastic. Apparently, the non-professorial teaching and research staff (in German: "Mittelbau") is sick of being offered mostly fixed-term part-time jobs at universities. And "fixed-term" more often than not means contracts for less than two years, or even less than one year!

The hashtag #unbezahlt refers to jobs or tasks that academics do without being properly paid for them, e.g., reviewing, grant proposal writing, talk preparation, student supervision, workshop organization, edition of volumes of scholarly papers, thesis writing, teaching. Wait, but aren't these genuine academic tasks? Why would people not get paid for doing them in the first place, and secondly, why would they do them if they don't get paid (or not get paid properly, as is the case for adjunct lecturers at German universities; have you ever heard of "Titellehre", when you have to teach for not losing your status as "Privatdozent", and as you have to, universities can offer to pay, hm, nothing at all)? The main factor is probably the vague hope to be able to list all these tasks on your CV to be eligible for a professorship one day. Of course, one hast to be qualified, too, but this "only" means writing the so-called "second book"—all the other things: being an active member of the scientific community, building a network, etc. are no hard conditions, but a widely agreed upon view is that without those you won't have a chance to get a professorship one day. However, due to the very limited number of professorships at German universities, having all this on your CV doesn't mean that you will get one sooner or later. And apparently, people in academia realize this more and more and they get upset more and more. I predict a rather hot academic summer! At least I hope so.

The German academic system (or the German university) is often seen as being rather feudalistic, old-fashioned, and out-dated. Which is also supported by the fact that there has been almost no investment in infrastructure of any kind in the last decades. Which is partly due to the German system of federal vs. state tasks; only recently the ban of cooperation with respect to education has been lifted. So German universities, German acadmia has to move and has to keep up with current developments, with the digital transformation—people start to leave either the system as such (they rather aim for a job in industry) or they move into other academic systems (Switzerland, Scandinavia, USA, etc.) where they feel more welcome.

The other week I read "Digitale Gefolgschaft. Auf dem Weg in eine Stammesgesellschaft" by the philosopher Christoph Türcke, C.H.Beck Verlag, München 2019 (there is also an interview at Deutschlandfunk Kultur (also in German)). Türcke makes some interesting points and bold claims, but one thing struck me: He writes about how the digital transformation changes the working processes. People working with digitized data on mobile devices are able to work from anywhere at anytime they want. It even changes other fields like taxi driving (Uber) or hotel business (AirBnB). As customer, you just call for a service or a product and it will be delivered. Türcke doesn't mention the term, but "uberization" of whatever industrial field is everywhere. And this is the future, it has started already and it will increase.

However, on page 45 he writes:

"Universitäten sind längst dazu übergegangen, einen großen Teil von Forschung und Lehre auf Lieferbasis erledigen zu lassen. Die Mehrzahl hochqualifizierter Nachwuchswissenschaftler bewegt sich von Forschungsprojekt zu Forschungsprojekt, von Lehrauftrag zu Lehrauftrag, mit geringer Aussicht, daß ihr Engagement irgendwann einmal mit einer der wenigen festen Stellen belohnt wird."

(Translation by "Universities have long since started to have a large part of their research and teaching done on a delivery basis. The majority of highly qualified young scientists move from research project to research project, from teaching position to teaching position, with little prospect that their commitment will be rewarded some day with one of the few permanent positions.")

On the one hand, Türcke states what I just wrote in the beginning: the situation in academia is rather bad, people don't have a realistic long-term perspective. On the other hand, some sentences earlier he characterized the uberized society as the future; so the first sentence I cited could be turned into a rather optimistic picture: German universities are not left behind, they are far ahead! The already started uberizing research as well as teaching! Isn't that wonderful?

If only we could convince the academic staff to let go hoping for a professorship but doing scientific research and teaching in a similar fashion they drive their taxis—and wasn't that always the fallback plan at least for students in the humanities and arts: to be a taxi driver with a doctorate?!