Against precariousness in higher education. A petition to the Swiss Federal Assembly

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For more Permanent Jobs in Academia: Better Research, Teaching and Working Conditions

We call on the Federal Assembly to improve the working conditions of researchers, protect their health and family life, and thereby ensure the excellence of scientific research in Switzerland through the creation of a significant number of permanent positions for postdoctoral researchers.

Academic positions should be diversified through the creation or expansion of permanent mid-level positions between research assistantships and professorships. As the Swiss Academy of the Humanities and Social Sciences points out in its 2018 report, this means “converting employment categories that were previously fixed-term into permanent positions and limiting resources channeled to research projects in favor of a higher basic funding” [1]. The Federal Assembly must send a clear message to higher education institutions, their representative bodies, and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and compel them to review hiring and promotion policies for junior researchers in order to create a significant number of permanent academic positions available as early as possible after obtaining a doctorate.

[1] “Umwandlung von bislang befristeten Stellenkategorien in unbefristete Stellen sowie (…) eine Reduktion der projektförmig vergebenen Forschungsmittel zugunsten einer höheren Grundfinanzierung der Hochschulen”. Schweizerische Akademie der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften (2018), Next Generation: Für eine wirksame Nachwuchsförderung, Swiss Academies Reports, 13 (1), p. 46.

Why sign?

In Switzerland, 80% of the highly-qualified academic staff is on precarious contracts. We believe a wealthy, education-driven society like Switzerland can do better!

Researchers in Switzerland face increasingly precarious working conditions that impact both their health and the quality of their work. In the current academic system, where only chaired professors have permanent positions (with a few exceptions), around 80% of the academic staff is employed on fixed-term contracts [1]. Among them are more than 40,000 members of the mid-ranking category known in French as corps intermédiaire and in German as Mittelbau (intermediate staff), which includes doctoral students, post-doctoral researchers, teaching staff, and scientific collaborators [2]. The excellence of the scientific research produced in Switzerland depends heavily on the labor of this high-skill workforce which is subject to increasing precariousness. Without the work performed by this intermediate staff, research would not be possible.

However, mid-level academic workers face a growing number of difficulties and hurdles when performing their professional duties. Their employment is characterized by a succession of fixed-term contracts (usually part-time and tied to a research project, at best for a few years, sometimes for a few months) as well as insufficient income, lack of autonomy in planning academic activities, dependence to individual professors, and bleak prospects of ever attaining a permanent academic position.

In this context of systemic precariousness and widespread competition, the race to publish takes place amid a continuous search for funding and employment opportunities, which usually begins during doctoral studies. This work environment provides a fertile ground for abuses such as unpaid overtime, gender discrimination (which goes all the way to the top [3]), harassment, bullying, favouritism, misappropriation of research results, imposed co-authorships, and other forms of exploitation. The result is a squandering of human resources in academic departments through burnouts, interrupted research projects, and early abandonment of academic careers. These working conditions also make it harder to start a family or develop your own research and professional project, and they compel researchers to put off having children—sometimes indefinitely. The requirement of international mobility after the PhD also puts a strain on family life and drives some researchers—especially women—out of academia, thus deepening gender inequalities.

The implementation of the Bologna process in the early 2000s aggravated this problem by putting universities across Europe in competition with each other. A 2014 report by the Swiss Federal Council notes that “there are relatively few differentiated and autonomous [academic] positions in Swiss universities that would allow young researchers to conduct their own research and [engage in] long-term career planning at an early stage in their careers” [4]. Echoing this critical assessment of the academic market, the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW) called on universities to “increase the number of permanent positions for senior scientists” in 2018 [5]. Associations representing the mid-level academic staff have been sounding the alarm for years. Yet these calls have not led to any significant reform. The recent Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the lack of job security facing researchers in Switzerland.

It is time for the Federal Assembly to address this widespread distress and take appropriate action.

[1] Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW) (2018). Next Generation: pour une promotion efficace de la relève. Swiss Academies Reports 13 (2), p. 11 – Translated from French by the petition authors.

[2] Based on Federal Statistical Office (2019). Personal der universitâren Hochschulen 2018 (Table 5c). Our number includes Assistant and scientific staff (Assistierende und wissenschaftliche Mitarbeitende), other lecturers (übrige Dozierende) as well the mid-level staff at universities of applied sciences and arts (Fachhochschulen) and teacher education (Pädagogische Hochschule).

[3] Only 23,4 percent of full professors at Swiss universities are women (OFS 2019).

[4] Secrétariat d’État à la formation, à la recherche et à l’innovation (2014). Mesures pour encourager la relève scientifique en Suisse. Rapport du Conseil fédéral en exécution du postulat CSEC-CE 12.3343, p. 7 – Translated from French by the petition authors.

[5] “Es ist daher unerlässlich […] dass an den Schweizer Universitäten die unbefristeten Stellen für höher qualifizierte Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler vermehrt werden.” Schweizerische Akademie der Geistes- und Sozialwissenschaften (2018), Next Generation: Für eine wirksame Nachwuchsförderung, Swiss Academies Reports, 13 (1), p. 49.

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