The Sprach- und Kulturbörse supports the TVStud initiative


The Sprach- and Kulturbörse is declaring its solidarity with the TVStud initiative. But what does this industrial dispute have to do with the SKB? Here we explain our reasons for supporting TVStud.


The name “TVStud” derives from the Berlin Labour Agreement (Tarifvertrag) for Student Employees (TV Stud II). This agreement defines the working conditions of the over 8,000 student workers in Berlin’s tertiary education system – people who run tutorials, provide advice to students, contribute to research and help keep libraries, faculties and departments, and IT services running.


Strike assembly on February 2nd, 2018
Strike assembly on the 2nd of February, 2018.

Through the TVStud initiative, a number of these student employees have set a new development going. The SKB – an educational initiative that strives for a more open and democratic society – sees the potential in this development to contribute to an emancipation of the education system. That is why we’ve declared our solidarity with the student employees.


The demands at the centre of the TVStud initiative’s conflict with the institutions are directed first of all against the precarity and the underpayment that student employees are experiencing. It is helpful to consider these in historical perspective. During its first 15 years, TV Stud II was linked to the wage dynamic in the rest of the public service, so that student wages could keep up with inflation. But in 2001, this mechanism was removed.

Graph comparing tutor wages with inflation.

image source


Now TVStud and the trade unions ver.di and GEW are demanding, firstly that the purchasing power of 2001 be restored by raising the hourly rate to 14€, and secondly that the automatic adjustment mechanism be reinstated. Further demands aim to improve teaching conditions for student tutors (and thus also conditions for their students) and to make the material position of student employees less precarious in other ways.


A social movement acquires concreteness through its demands. But as we’ve already suggested, the arguments of the TVStud initiative show that there is more at stake here than a possible pay rise. In what follows, we indicate how the TVStud initiative reveals serious problems in the education system as well as in society more generally. In particular, the initiative helps to focus attention on several important matters:


  • that the education system helps to produce and structure social inequalities;
  • that forms of competitiveness that already have destructive effects elsewhere in society have in the last few years been introduced into the education system too;
  • that tertiary institutions are a place where solidarity is necessary in order to root out sources of fear and aggression and to work against social tendencies to exclusion and violence.


Let's consider each of these in turn.


1. The role of the education system in the production of social inequalities


The education system satisfies needs for education and prepares people for paid work. However, from kindergarten onwards its workings are inflected by the imperative to subsume young people under social selection processes. According to a common, normative conception, individuals ought to use the education system in order to get themselves transposed into the labour market at a position that accords as closely as possible with their aspirations. The thought is that those who are have just been transposed in this way will have to submit to being used by their superiors, but that later, if they are successful, they themselves will be able to command the labour of others.


The initiative TVStud trains a spotlight on these hierarchically-based conceptions by opposing a different principle to them. The student workers are doing this by demanding more pay for their work. Their demand implies the idea that student positions oughtn’t to be open only to those who are able to subsidise them on their way further up the hierarchy. The work that students do ought not to be a means of getting the jump on others. The potential dignity of this work consists rather in its ability to make possible places where people are happy to be and encounters they would like to extend. Of course, making student positions economically less precarious only represents a first step to the establishment of this dignity. It would take a transformed social context to enable its full development.


Before we elaborate on this transformation from a different angle, a comment on the hierarchisation of staffing structures at German universities. So-called early-career researchers in Germany are confronted with a particularly stark form of the deal that promises them freedom later on in exchange for dependency now. The majority of researchers at Germany universities are affected by what has been called “precarious mobility”: they live on fixed-term contracts that mostly run for less than a year. Both materially and in relationship to their subject matter, this situation makes these so-called “young” researchers (in fact often over 45) dependent on the mini-monarchs of the Holy Roman Empire of German Research, namely on professors, who are able to promote or hinder the advance of those who seek their protection. The figure below reveals the proportions of this structure.[1]


It shows that under the conditions prevailing in Germany, the hope on which extremely many researchers presumably live – to be able to enjoy independence in teaching and research at some point in the future – can in most cases never be fulfilled. Note also that this diagram doesn’t represent student employees who work in research context. They would actually have to form a group below the red field representing dependent researchers (abhängiges Personal) on temporary contracts (befristete Verträge).


Comparison of tertiary sector employment structures.


2. A chance to overcome social sources of fear and aggression


The tradition to which the SKB belongs aims at the transformation of market-based society into a cooperative one composed of internally democratic and egalitarian organisations.[2] This goal is often dismissed as utopian – and not without reason. But the true reason lies not so much in people’s clairvoyant abilities to know what can or can’t ever become of human social relations, as in difficulties when it comes to understanding how start transforming the structures of our world.


The current campaign can assist us here, too, helping us to understand those difficulties and revealing transformational forces that are already at work inside us and around us.


When organisations are submerged in the element of economic competition, powerful instincts awaken inside them. These instincts strive to restructure the institutions hierarchically and to concentrate authority and visibility at the upper levels. This sort of reorganisation through competition is currently taking place in German tertiary education. The policy settings – particularly a reduction in base-line funding while student numbers have continued to grow – have been designed to force institutions to compete for both private and public research funding (the latter competition is called the Excellence Initiative or Excellence Strategy). At all levels – from the whole organisation, through faculties or subject divisions down to individual institutes – this situation gives rise to the same fears: if we lose the current round we’ll go into the next one all the more poorly equipped and with correspondingly lower chances of success.[3] “We” means here the respective in-group, since individuals are also driven by fear to identify themselves with just those units for which they work and to think of “use and be used” as their tacit motto.


Joining together in cross-institutional solidarity, student workers are resisting these imperatives and the fears they generate. Their struggle contests the right of the education system to force them to choose between a precarious existence and the deployment of social power as if it were a pair of elbows. Instead, their solidarity reveals forces of caring engagement – forces that are often present wherever human beings have to do with one other, but are made invisible and blocked when they are exploited. The practical solidarity of student workers cries out that the conditions under which we work and are educated can be remade. It points to the beginnings of such a transformation in existing practices of care.


However, our ability to change course is largely obscured. People often blame the system. The student workers have been demanding a more egalitarian university budget; the answer from the representatives of the institutions has been that these demands go too far. Given scarce resources, it is plausible for institutional representatives to point to the intensification of competition: every application of funds must, they may say, be subordinated to the goal of securing us a place at the top of the national league tables. Thus in 2006, close to the outset of the Excellence Initiative competition, the President of the Free University Berlin (FU) wrote in a circular to all FU professors: “In the coming years it will be decided whether the Free University will continue to rank among the top ten or whether it will fall behind. This also means that all strategic decisions about structures, appointments, priorities and work goals must always be evaluated and taken against the background of this goal.”[4]


In effect, such arguments take dynamics that human beings have introduced into the social world - dynamics which decision-makers would be in a good position to resist and reform – and exalt them into sacred necessities. As we have seen, the beginnings of that which could be different are already present. But arguments like these banish it to a utopian beyond. Seemingly trapped, we often see no alternative but to look for ways to rationalise our own predicament and what it does to us. But solidarity in thought, speech and action can help us to break out of this circle.


3. Dissolving sources of aggression – in the education system too!


It would be easy for the SKB, too, to ignore the chance to express our solidarity. Only a small minority of our members have the status in question in the wage dispute. Thus we could try to observe a strict separation between our work - "education", say - and political matters that don't concern us. But to begin with, we cannot fail but be reminded of what happens when society reproduces itself via mechanisms of selection and places those who they discard in positions of material precarity. The social and mental atmospheres in which we live are poisoned, atmospheres in which aggressive, discriminatory social movements thrive. But still we could try to avoid the necessary conclusions. We could still try to tell ourselves, for instance, that even if a storm of competition is being whipped up within the system of higher education, and even if the majority of those who work in it are feeling the pressure that results from precarious circumstances, the institutions alone are not enough to bring about racist or misogynist violence.[5]


“The institutions alone”, however, are an abstraction. The real institutions are part of a nationwide education system that is functionally embedded in society. This whole has long been under the spell of social selection; competition and precariousness have been added, now within the education system as formerly elsewhere. These are all mechanisms in which powerful dynamics of fear and aggression are rooted. If, then, society secretes chauvinism and violence, those with tertiary educations cannot refuse to take responsibility. It is true that the social power of people with tertiary educations – i.e. of those who have been selected – often expresses their aggressions in impersonal or regulated forms. And so the conclusion is drawn: it is basically those others, those whom the German euphemism calls bildungsfern (remote from education), who are violent. Yet it is university graduates who occupy the hegemonic positions in the system that selectively educates and educates by selecting – and thus creates the invidious distinction educated/uneducated in the first place.


The contradictions in education addressed by the striking student workers are essentially related to contradictions in society in general. It is time for institutions of higher education to pay closer attention to the social consequences of their own internal organisation. If violence against the marginalized is not to continue, the answer can’t be a call for more – whether it be more social control or more education or both. Rather, the path to the free transformation of the structures within which we live must be opened. Otherwise education has no chance of becoming truly emancipatory. But the first step is to seek solidarity across organisational boundaries and the trenches that competition digs.


This text was composed through the collaboration of several people in and around the SKB, among them Alexandra Barisic, Marc Hiatt and Heinz Tönnies. On February 6, 2018, the full assembly of the SKB resolved to publish it.




[1] From a study by Reinhard Kreckel, ‘Karrieremodelle an Universitäten im internationalen Vergleich’. In: A. Borgwardt (ed.), Der lange Weg zur Professur, Berlin, 2010. S. 33-44. Cf. the (German) summary in Forschung & Lehre, (1) 2012.


[2] A helpful German-language summary of this tradition has been provided by Wolfgang Nitsch, one of the co-authors of the programme for a democratising reform of the tertiary education system adopted in 1961/65 by the West-German SDS (Sozialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund). See ‘Hochschule in der Demokratie - Demokratie in der Hochschule: Zwischenbilanz eines uneingelösten Vermächtnisses’.



[3] The declared goal of the Excellence Initiative is indeed the “vertical differentiation” of the German tertiary education system or, in the words of three of its critics, the “creation of hierarchies between institutions and a redistribution of scarce funds from the bottom to the top.” Advocates of the programme have also advocated the centralisation of power in the hands of upper managers. (Cf. Tilman Reitz, Angela Graf, Christina Möller, 2016. ‘Preview: Nicht förderungswürdig. Weshalb die Evaluation der Exzellenzinitiative gegen deren Fortsetzung spricht’ In: sub\urban. zeitschrift für kritische stadtforschung.)


[4] Bodo Zeuner, Valedictory lecture, July 11, 2007: ‘Die Freie Uuniversität vor dem Börsengang? Bemerkungen zur Ökonomisierung der Wissenschaft’.


[5] Significant cases of racist or misogynist violence have been directed at people who study or work at tertiary institutions – see Arvid Peschel, ‘In Remembrance of Mahmud Azhar: a racist murder on the FU campus’ (Out of Dahlem 15, 2014) and Anon., ‘Statement of Vindication’ (Overland 220, Spring 2015).