The labour struggle of early career researchers – comparing the situation in the UK and Germany

by | Dec 21, 2022 | Interview, Short form | 0 comments

Author: Dennis Pirdzuns

   Students and early career researchers organise for labour struggle in growing numbers in the United Kingdom and Germany. While the academic sectors in both countries differ in several dimensions, the situation facing academic staff is strikingly similar: increasingly insecure career paths, inconsistent employment regulations, and insufficient pay are endemic and disproportionately affect early-stage academics. In defiance of these deficits, the University and College Union (UCU) recently achieved a high level of approval in a ballot for nationwide industrial action, a novelty for an educational trade union in the UK. In Germany, teaching assistants organise in close cooperation with the ‘trade union for education and science’ (GEW) to achieve inclusion in all regional wage agreements. 

   To learn more about the problems and demands of employed students in Germany, I talked to Julia Schnäbelin, a representative for the GEW at the University of Wuppertal. About the labour struggle of early career researchers in the UK, I interviewed a UCU activist and academic employee living in Manchester who prefers to remain unnamed – a telling precaution for someone dependent on their teaching income. I can also draw on my own experience as a teaching assistant at universities in Germany and the UK as well as an active member of both UCU and GEW. While the following account is unsurprisingly partial, the addressed issues will be well-known to anyone involved in the academic sector of either country. 


 Similarly difficult working conditions

   Clearly the most serious issue, for academic staff in general and early career researchers in particular, is the prevalence of fixed-term contracts, all too often with extremely short durations of less than a year. Especially teaching assistants are employed only for a few months. Their contracts expire as soon as teaching is suspended during each term break, thus creating a funding gap for all those dependent on this income. To further complicate things, re-employment or extensions are declared at very short notice. All this undermines any possibility for career planning or care responsibilities, and causes problems securing rented accommodation. Speaking of accommodation: due to their very short contracts, academics need to move much more frequently in order to follow their changing employments. Meanwhile, universities praise the ‘flexibility’ of academic work. It turns out to be little more than thinly disguised precariousness. 

   The problems of the academic sector do not stop there: in addition to job insecurity, the wage conditions are similarly irregular. Many unpaid hours for preparation, marking and student support are commonplace and mostly treated as a matter of course. Early career researchers are disproportionately affected, as seen by the lack (or deliberate obscurity) of statutory sick pay for teaching assistants. The pay is especially low in Germany, where students are employed on minimum wage and fully qualified researchers barely above this. A low level of academic wages, however, applies similarly to Germany and the UK. Another parallel is that working and wage conditions, especially for student staff, mostly depend on each university’s local management. All this happens in public institutions with big budgets at their disposal, albeit with different institutional arrangements and endowments in the UK and Germany. 


 Similarly difficult labour struggle

   Despite a comparable situation regarding wages, working conditions and contracts, academics in the UK and Germany organise in different ways to demand substantial improvements. In the UK, the law impedes trade union action: ballots are hampered by high procedural hurdles and even in the case of successful turnout, a ballot’s validity only lasts for 6 months. The situation in Germany is generally more favourable, despite some unique drawbacks like the exclusion of employed students from works council’s representation and a strike ban for professors due to their status as civil servants. Nevertheless, the German collective bargaining law (“Tarifrecht”) makes the trade unions’ negation power structurally stronger. This, incidentally, leads to less frequent and much smaller strike action than in the UK, as trade unions have other means to promote their members’ interests. 

   Trade unions in both UK and Germany face not only similar situations but also a similar challenge in their labour struggle, for mobilisation among academics and students is fairly low for several reasons: firstly, academics have little opportunity to organise due to their short employment and frequent changes in location; secondly, university employees, including academic, administrative and other service staff, is split between different unions and while these unions generally stand in strong solidarity, it still leads to different groups to be isolated and few in numbers; thirdly, industrial action most directly affects students and not employers, which makes it difficult for teaching staff who care about the learning experience of their students, and makes it easier for employers to simply sit it out.


 Similarly difficult mobilisation

   But the gravest difficulty for trade union organisation in the academic sector is by far the reluctance of academics, especially early-stage researchers, to speak out against their bad working conditions, for fear of risking further employment or even their entire career. The fact that one of my interview partners prefers to remain unnamed is a clear and distressing illustration. Although the German academic job market is slightly more strictly regulated than in the UK, this is little solace for many doctoral students in Germany. Because there, doctoral students often work for their supervising professors. Should those students ever dare to speak up, they confront their superiors and their supervisors in the same person. They will thus not only endanger further employment but also their academic qualification. 

   Academics in both countries are, again, in a similar predicament: perpetually precarious employment forces especially early career academics to keep their heads down and avoid any association with trade union activity. This intimidation erodes the position of the unions and stacks the cards against workers, which frustrates the possibility for improvements, and feeds back into a vicious cycle. Although disagreements about work arrangements between employees and employers are hardly unheard of and might well be inevitable to some extent, the sheer scope of the power imbalance in the academic sector clearly stands out from most other areas of the economy. Many academics will know the genuine surprise of friends and family after learning about this sobering reality. The high esteem of academic institutions and the central importance of research for modern societies make it counter-intuitive that researchers would need to work in such precarious conditions. 


 Similarly strong arguments

   Besides a widespread lack of knowledge, the bewilderment of bystanders points out something else, too: rarely anyone thinks of these conditions as in any way acceptable. This could be a great source of support for trade unions’ demands for substantive change:

  • first and foremost, effective measures must be taken against the excessive use of fixed-term contracts, and a minimum length of one year needs to be implemented, (in the German case, employed doctoral students also need contract lengths that actually allow them to finish their studies);
  • secondly, pay must be improved to make up for the recent increase in living costs, as well as to match actual working hours more generally, (additionally in the UK case, the pension scheme needs to be re-evaluated immediately and objectively);
  • thirdly, equal pay and working conditions must be realised for all academic staff with comparable work, regardless of personal backgrounds and across the sector. 

   Given the portrayed reality of the academic labour market in both countries, these demands are ambitious. But I say, the arguments are clearly more convincing to all affected as well as to uninvolved bystanders. The valuation of the pension scheme for UK academics during an economic downturn caused by a pandemic, and the refusal to re-evaluate after sector-wide profits have more than recuperated, is plainly wrong. Equally, the exclusion of student staff from wage agreements and pay at or barely above minimum wage for academics in Germany is incomprehensible. It can, of course, be objected that the position of this article is one-sided, and indeed it is. I have admitted my partiality already. But how can the depicted conditions be justified? The burden of proof is clearly on the side of university management and the regulating bodies. 


Short bio

Dennis Pirdzuns is a PhD student in Politics at the University of Manchester. His research looks at poverty, sufficiency and suffering in political theory and moral philosophy. He received his MA in Philosophy and Political Theory from the University of Manchester and his BA in Political Science and Philosophy from the University of Wuppertal. Throughout his studies, Dennis worked as Teaching Assistant for different universities, for a Students’ Union, and as Secretarial Assistant in a leading institute for sustainability research.





Image credits
Shutterstock photo ID: 1590843127
Date: 25th November 2019
Author: AIZAT K
Permission: editorial use only