Precarious Employees at Austria's Universities Protesting

PeopleOther ♦ Published: November 24, 2022; 23:23 ♦ (Vindobona)

The current funding crisis, caused by inflation and rising energy costs, is being felt by younger researchers in particular. Most of them have fixed-term contracts, and now there is to be a freeze on extensions. At a protest event, they draw attention to their precarious working conditions.

The amended Universities Act limits fixed-term employment contracts at universities to a maximum of eight years. / Picture: © Wikimedia Commons, Bwag, CC BY-SA 4.0

The fixed-term contracts and chain contracts primarily affect researchers who are precariously employed at the universities. The majority of academic staff have fixed-term contracts that run for one to two years. The positions are often financed through research projects, i.e. third-party funding. Then the researchers have to apply for an extension. After eight years, that's it - since the amendment to the Universities Act in 2021, there may be no further chain contracts at a university after this period.

Researchers are forced to change universities, go abroad or leave science, says Stephan Pühringer, an economist at the University of Linz, according to ORF. Many can't afford to do so, he said. "Whether that's because of childcare obligations, or because people are not as geographically mobile for some reason, or because they are employed part-time 20 hours, but implicitly are always required to work full-time," Pühringer told ORF.

This is not a marginal phenomenon, as around 80 percent of the academic mid-level staff, i.e. all academic staff at universities, have such fixed-term contracts. Across Austria, that's about 34,000 employees as reported by ORF. "If you take out the professorships here, we are at 90 percent of the mid-level staff who are employed on fixed-term contracts," Pühringer told ORF. This means that the universities replace a large part of their employees every eight years. This also harms Austria as a center of science, the economist continued, according to ORF.

Together with other researchers and lecturers, Stefan Pühringer founded the Unterbau Wissenschaft network, which campaigns for an improvement in working conditions and the democratization of Austrian universities.

These precarious employees are severely underrepresented in the university senates and commissions. They simply lack the time to take on such tasks. The pressure to publish to get a contract extension is too great, she says. "In my case, too, my contract at the University of Linz is shorter than my period in the Senate," Pühringer tells ORF. That's not an incentive to get involved, he says.

Because of the current funding crisis, some universities have already announced a freeze on reappointments and admissions. This is one of the reasons why the Unterbau Wissenschaft network is inviting people to a plenary meeting in Vienna.

They demand an end to chain contracts and the validity of the general labor law also for scientists at Austrian universities, more permanent positions and more say for temporary employees.