Young scientists should be better protected from short-term employment contracts and fixed-term contracts. The Federal Cabinet in Berlin is discussing changes to the so-called Science Temporary Contract Act.

The plans are partly supported by works councils, unions and student representatives, but are also sharply criticized. They doubt that this will make any noticeable difference for young scientists.

Law has been criticized for a long time

Since 2007, the Science Temporary Contract Act has regulated the issue of fixed-term employment contracts for scientific and artistic staff at state universities and research institutions. It has long been criticized because in practice many young researchers have to move from one fixed-term employment contract to the next.

Anyone who has not secured one of the coveted professorships or one of the other permanent positions within a certain period of time must find accommodation elsewhere. Those affected have long been drawing attention to their situation online using the hashtag “IchBinHanna”.

Contracts with a term of less than one year

The Federal Ministry of Education believes that fixed-term contracts in themselves make sense so that young scientists can move up and there is a certain fluctuation. But, as it argues in its draft law (available from dpa), the proportion of short-term contracts is still high.

At least one in three fixed-term contracts at universities and one in four at non-university research institutions only have a term of less than one year. For those affected, this means a lack of professional security and no ability to plan, including with regard to the compatibility of work and family. Jobs in science are therefore not particularly attractive in times of a shortage of skilled workers.

New: Minimum requirements for contract periods

The reform is now intended to introduce minimum contract periods. The first employment contract before the doctorate – i.e. before the doctorate title – must generally have a term of at least three years and after the doctorate in the so-called post-doc phase of at least two years.

In the future, post-docs will also be allowed to be employed on a fixed-term basis for a maximum of four years. It’s been six years so far. A further two years should then only be permitted with a binding commitment for a subsequent permanent position. Within these two years, jointly defined research goals must be achieved.

Something should also change for student employees: In the future, they will be allowed to be employed on a temporary basis for up to eight years (previously a maximum of six) so that they do not have to look for a new part-time job if the standard period of study is exceeded at the end of their studies. And a minimum contract term of one year should create more reliability. According to the ministry, contracts have so far run for an average of almost six months and have been repeatedly extended.

Longer transition periods

After the cabinet decision, the law still has to go through the Bundestag and Bundesrat, which is likely to take several weeks. It does not require approval in the Federal Council. Dates for the deliberations in parliament and the state chamber have not yet been set.

The law should only come into force six months after it has been passed and announced in the Federal Law Gazette so that universities can adapt to it. Current contracts will also remain unaffected by the new regulations, it is said.

Criticism: Rules are harmful “in the rush hour of life”

An alliance of trade unions, works councils and student representatives welcomes the planned minimum contract terms, but criticizes the planned shortening of the fixed-term period after completing a doctorate from six to four years.

This is damaging to the scientists “who rush from one contract to another in the rush hour of life under the greatest competitive pressure,” says a joint statement from, among others, the German Federation of Trade Unions, Verdi and the general works councils of the Fraunhofer and Max Planck companies the dpa is available. They demand permanent employment after completing their doctorate or a binding commitment to permanent employment if specified criteria are met.

Another point of criticism is that employees in science are largely left out of collective agreements. The Science Temporary Contract Act allows deviations from its rules through collective agreements. However, the options remain limited even after the reform. “Trade unions and employers must be allowed to negotiate improvements for employees – just like in other industries,” demand the employee representatives. You call it a “tariff freeze”.

According to data from the Federal Ministry of Education, in 2022, out of a total of 227,000 full-time scientific and artistic employees, 178,000 were employed on a temporary basis at state universities.