Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act

The Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act provides the legal framework for fixed-term contracts in science and academia. You can find all the key information here.

Studenten
The Federal Government continuously monitors the practice of using fixed-term contracts in the German academic system in order to identify any need for reform as early as possible © Thinkstock

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

In response to the exceptional circumstances currently prevailing, the Academic Research and Student Support Act (WissStudUG) was passed in May 2020 as a limited interim measure to supplement the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act (WissZeitVG). Due to the restrictions to scientific and academic activities caused by the pandemic, the maximum fixed term for the employment of academic staff currently pursuing advanced academic qualifications was extended. Employment contracts concluded for advanced academic training and in place between 1 March 2020 and 30 September 2020 can now be extended by an additional six months.

In the event of the COVID-19 pandemic lasting longer than originally foreseen, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) was authorized to issue an ordinance to extend the maximum fixed term of employment by up to six more months, depending on the duration of the crisis, with the approval of the Bundesrat.

Read more about this (in German) here.

The BMBF has now exercised its authority to issue such an ordinance as the pandemic is still causing considerable restrictions to scientific and academic activities. In this context, the maximum length of fixed-term contracts for academic staff undergoing advanced academic training has been extended by a further six months. This six-month extension is also valid for employment contracts established between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021. The Bundesrat approved this ordinance on 18 September 2020. The ordinance came into effect on 1 October 2020.

First introduced in 2007, the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act (WissZeitVG) governs fixed-term employment of academic staff at public higher education and research institutions in Germany, stipulating the conditions for and limits to such employment. The Act meets the unique requirements of work in the world of science and academia as, in contrast to general labour laws, it contains specific provisions concerning fixed-term contracts.

Fixed-term contracts are appropriate and necessary, particularly for young scientists and academics who are currently pursuing advanced academic qualifications. Access to work in science and academia would be considerably more difficult for subsequent generations without the rotation of jobs facilitated by fixed-term contracts.

Good practices are needed to implement the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act and enable the intended effects to take place. As employers, higher education and research institutions must act responsibly when exercising the flexibility granted to them. This applies to the length and number of fixed-term contracts as well as to maintaining an appropriate balance between fixed-term and permanent positions which must be determined for each individual institution. The Federal Government continuously monitors the practice of using fixed-term contracts in the German academic system in order to identify any need for reform as early as possible and to be able to respond appropriately in case undesirable trends should develop, without restricting the flexibility and dynamism upon which science and research depends.

The Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act was amended in March 2016 to improve the way the provisions for fixed-term contracts are applied and to prevent the improper use of short-term contracts in particular. Prior to this, the number of short-term contracts had risen to an unjustifiable level, which motivated the Federal Government to reform the Act. This measure accompanies necessary actions taken by the higher education and research institutions to improve conditions for early-career researchers.

As part of the amendments made to the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act, section 8 stipulates the obligation to evaluate the effects of this law in 2020. In order to comply with this obligation, a Europe-wide call for bids was published on the Federal Government’s electronic tendering platform e-Vergabe on 17 April 2019. A bid was accepted from the bidding syndicate InterVal GmbH and HIS-Institut für Hochschulentwicklung e.V. on 20 August 2019. The evaluation period was originally planned to run for two years starting from 1 January 2020. In consultation with the advisory board for the evaluation and at the request of the universities and research institutions, the evaluation was extended by three months in order to take account of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. It can therefore be expected that the evaluation results will be presented to the public in spring 2022.

FAQs about the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act

What options are available for fixed-term contracts?

Since the law was amended on 17 March 2016, the duration of fixed-term contracts awarded in connection with advanced academic training must be commensurate to the qualification sought. If fixed-term contracts are linked to third party funding, they must correspond with the approved project duration. For example, if a person spends three years writing their doctoral thesis, they should also be employed by the university for this period. The situation is similar for third party funded projects – researchers working on such projects should be able to sign a contract that covers the entire period for which funding has been awarded.

What does “academic training” mean?

Advanced academic training is not restricted to obtaining a formal qualification such as a doctoral degree or habilitation (postdoctoral thesis). Instead, it is much more a matter of obtaining research skills and academic competences. This is not restricted to training for research and teaching activities.

Why are there so many fixed-term contracts in academia in the first place?

Fixed-term employment for advanced academic training is appropriate and necessary because this is the only way to guarantee the same opportunities for every generation of early-career researchers, giving them the chance to work in higher education or research for a limited period (rotation principle).

Who does the law apply to?

The law applies to academic staff at public and state-recognized higher education institutions and at research institutions. Private employment contracts with members of a higher education institution are also governed by the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act.

Who is covered by the term “academic staff”?

Anyone who performs a scientific or scholarly service is considered to be academic staff. Whether in the field of anthropology or medicine, PhD student or postdoc position – anyone who deals with questions that aim to produce new knowledge and insights is deemed to perform academic work and is therefore considered to be academic staff.

Does the law also apply to professors?

Professors, including junior professors, at public institutions of higher education are exempt from this law (section 1 (1) sentence 1 of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act). They are subject to the higher education legislation of the Länder. However, in accordance with the ruling of the Federal Labour Court, teaching personnel at state-recognized institutions of higher education (section 4) do fall under the remit of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act.

Which research institutions does the law apply to?

The law applies to all state research institutions, i.e. those administered by the Federal Government or the Länder. It also applies to research institutions that receive all or the majority of their funding from the Federal Government and the Länder. In addition to this, the law also applies to research institutions that are primarily financed by third-party funds, but whose basic institutional funding is predominantly provided by the state.

Does the law also apply to non-academic staff?

No. Since the law was amended on 17 March 2016, non-academic staff working on a third party funded project can no longer be employed on a fixed-term contract on the basis of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act. If a fixed-term contract is sought in this context, this is now governed by general labour legislation.

How does this affect families?

It must be possible to balance academic work and family commitments. Even before its amendment in 2016, the law helped young scientists and academics to achieve this by stipulating that the maximum permissible duration of any fixed-term contract can be extended by two years per child in the case of caring for one or several children under the age of 18 (family-related provisions). The amendments brought in on 17 March 2016 clarified that this also applies to caring for stepchildren and foster children. Furthermore, stipulations were also amended to clarify that any breaks taken, e.g. for parental leave, are not to be counted towards the fixed term allotted for qualification and training.

Can the contract be extended again if the person has another child during the extension period?

Yes. This situation still means that a person is not able to make full use of the time available to them for their academic work due to their childcare responsibilities. This disadvantage is to be counterbalanced by the possibility of extending the duration of their fixed-term contract.

Will my employment contract be extended automatically as a result of the family-related provisions?

No. These stipulations extend the legally permissible duration of a fixed-term contract, thus providing employers and academic staff with the option to extend a person’s contract beyond the standard maximum period for fixed-term contracts. However, the contract is not extended automatically – agreement is required from both of the contract parties.

Both parents are employed at a higher education or research institution. Can both parents be granted an extension to their fixed-term contracts?

Yes. If both parents are undergoing advanced academic training, each parent’s fixed-term contract can be extended by two years for every child that they have.

One parent would like to take parental leave in order to take care of a child. Can their contract be extended further to account for their childcare responsibilities?

Yes. Extending a contract due to parental leave is not connected with extending a contract due to taking care of children. Both rules can be applied. To give an example: one parent is employed on a fixed-term contract for the purpose of advanced academic training and decides to take one year of parental leave to give their child their undivided attention. This establishes an entitlement of the parent vis-à-vis the employer to have their contract extended by one year – time taken for parental leave is effectively deducted. Once the person returns to work after parental leave, they still have to care for the child. They can therefore also benefit from the family-related stipulations included in the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act, which extend the maximum permissible duration of a fixed-term contract. In this case, in contrast to extending a contract due to parental leave, the employer’s approval is required in order to extend the employment contract.

What are the rules for people with disabilities?

Since the law was amended on 17 March 2016, fixed-term contracts for academic staff with disabilities or severe chronic illnesses can be extended by two years beyond the standard permissible contract duration.

What are the rules for students?

The amendment made to the law on 17 March 2016 established clear guidance with regard to employment contracts granted to students for providing ancillary academic services. Fixed-term contracts can be made for a period of up to six years. If students are employed during a bachelor’s or master's degree course, this period of employment is not to be counted towards the time permitted for fixed-term contracts for advanced academic training.

How is the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act evaluated?

As part of the amendments made to the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act, section 8 stipulates the obligation to evaluate the effects of this law in 2020. In order to comply with this obligation, a Europe-wide call for bids was published on the Federal Government’s electronic tendering platform e-Vergabe on 17 April 2019. A bid was accepted from the bidding syndicate Interval GmbH and HIS-Institut für Hochschulentwicklung e.V. on 20 August 2019. The evaluation process will run for two years starting from 1 January 2020. It can therefore be expected that the evaluation results will be presented to the public in spring 2022.

FAQs about changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic

What changes have been made to the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about considerable restrictions to the work and research activities performed by academic staff in Germany. Academic staff pursuing advanced academic qualifications as defined by section 2 (1) of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act (WissZeitVG) are particularly affected by this development as their contracts are subject to the maximum fixed terms stipulated in section 2 (1) sentences 1 and 2 of the same act (six years before and six years after – nine in the field of medicine – the completion of a doctoral degree).

The effect of the restrictions caused by the pandemic are to be counterbalanced. These members of academic staff should still be able to pursue academic qualifications, e.g. completing their doctoral degree or habilitation (postdoctoral thesis) and working on developing their careers in spite of the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For this reason, the Academic Research and Student Support Act was passed in May 2020, introducing section 7 (3) into the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act. According to this clause, the maximum permissible duration of a fixed-term contract as defined in section 2 (1) of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act and which is in place between 1 March 2020 and 30 September 2020 can now be extended by six months. This means that the maximum permissible duration of fixed-term contracts for staff employed between March and September 2020 in accordance with section 2 (1) of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act is automatically extended by six months.

In addition to this, in September 2020, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research exercised the authority granted in section 7 (3) sentence 2 of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act and issued an ordinance with the approval of the Bundesrat that extends the permissible duration of a fixed-term contract by a further six months (Ordinance on extending the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts governed by the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act – WissBdVV). This extension of a further six months applies to both employment contracts that were in place between 1 March 2020 and 30 September 2020 as well as to new employment contracts established between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021.

When do the provisions come into effect?

The (first) extension of the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts introduced through the Academic Research and Student Support Act has already entered into force with retroactive effect from 1 March 2020.

The (second) extension of the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts introduced through the ordinance on extending the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts governed by the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act (WissBdVV) follows on seamlessly from the provisions of the Academic Research and Student Support Act and entered into force on 1 October 2020.

During which period do I need to be employed in order to benefit from the extension to the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts?

The original six month extension of the permissible maximum duration of a fixed-term contract as introduced by the Academic Research and Student Support Act is tied to the requirement that the employment contract established for the purpose of pursuing advanced academic qualifications (as defined by section 2 (1) of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act) must be in place between 1 March 2020 and 30 September 2020; see section 7 (3) sentence 1 of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act. The further extension of the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts by an additional six months as introduced by the ordinance on extending the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts governed by the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act follows on seamlessly from this period and also includes new employment contracts that are established between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021.

It is not necessary for the employment contract to cover the entire period in question; it is still covered by the Act as long as the contract is or was in place at some point within the relevant period. The maximum permissible duration of all fixed-term contracts as covered by section 7 (3) sentence 1 of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act and in place between 1 March and 30 September 2020 has thus been extended by a total of twelve months. For all new fixed-term employment contracts established after 30 September 2020 and before 31 March 2021, the maximum permissible duration of these contracts has been extended by six months.

Will fixed-term contracts now be extended “automatically”?

No. Contracting parties may now extend contracts by up to six additional months, depending on individual circumstances. The scope for fixed-term employment has been extended with the introduction of section 7 (3) of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act and the ordinance on extending the maximum duration of fixed-term contracts governed by the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act. This affords higher education and research institutions as well as academic staff a new degree of flexibility with which to address difficult circumstances in a manner appropriate to the individual case.

Why aren’t fixed-term contracts for third party funded projects included?

The Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act only stipulates a maximum duration for fixed-term contracts for advanced academic training. In accordance with section 2 (2) of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act, the maximum duration of twelve or fifteen years (six years before and six after – or nine in the medical sector – the completion of a doctoral degree) does not apply to fixed-term contracts for third party funded projects. There are no maximum limits for fixed-term contracts in this context; the duration is typically based on that of the third party funded project.

Have measures also been adopted to support fixed-term contracts for third party funded projects?

Yes. Various funding providers have implemented numerous measures to provide quick and unbureaucratic relief for third party funded projects wherever possible. In this context, the BMBF has already moved to introduce greater flexibility to the general conditions governing project funding. Delays in implementing projects can be counterbalanced by extending the project duration. In addition to this, a number of formal requirements and deadlines related to funding administration have also been made more flexible. Other funding organizations, such as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) have also implemented various measures that reflect an attitude of fairness and flexibility.

Why don’t the provisions cover students with fixed-term contracts as defined by section 6 of the Academic Fixed-Term Contract Act?

Student personnel are not employed in order to obtain an academic qualification, but instead to provide support in the form of ancillary academic services. Insofar as they are able to perform these activities during the current situation (and are paid for these services), there is no reason not to count this work accordingly towards an existing fixed term or to extend an existing fixed-term contract. If the contract is suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this period is not counted towards existing fixed terms.