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“The ‘Position Statement of the Senate Regarding Assistants’ is a Super Result”

Student representatives to the Senate of the University of Freiburg Maya Rollberg and Jan Rahner take stock after one year

Freiburg, Nov 16, 2022

What can students achieve in the Senate, the university’s main governing body? What are the important issues? What have you experienced? Maya Rollberg, 26, and Jan Rahner, 21, represented students as members of the Senate from October 2021 to September 2022. Rollberg was the group’s spokesperson, Rahner was her deputy. Both of them were elected from the list of the Young Socialists’ university group. Rollberg is working on a Master’s in Environmental Governance. Rahner is studying law. Together they have submitted a position statement about the working conditions of assistants in the Senate. Thomas Goebel spoke with them.

Maya Rollberg and Jan Rahner. Photos: Dorina Köbele-Milas and Ludwig Striet

Ms. Rollberg, Mr. Rahner, you’ve represented students in University of Freiburg Senate for one year. Looking back, what do you think?

Rollberg: The university’s internal structures are complex. First, you need time to work your way into it, and become acquainted with the people from the Senate’s other status groups. That wasn’t easy at all, because last autumn, after the first meeting, we had to go back to video conferences because of corona.

Rahner: Yes, our term in office was still in a corona crisis year. Nevertheless, I think the balance is positive. As students, we were able to get through a few requests, such as the electoral rules. Those were changed. There, it was a matter of more parity in terms of representation on committees. And above all, a large majority of the Senate passed a position statement that we submitted. In it, the University of Freiburg has demanded that state policymakers improve the working conditions of student and research assistants. I think that’s a super result.

Rollberg: Especially when you consider that the Senate is a 43-member body and only five of them are students with voting rights.

Rahner: You can’t get a motion like that through on your own. You could say that if the Senate is going to approve a statement like that, you need alliances, with the professors, too, because they’re the majority in the governing body.

What moved you to submit a position statement about the working conditions of assistants to the Senate?

Rahner: Student working conditions were already an issue for us before we got elected. Nationwide, there’s a campaign called TV-Stud, to get a wage contract for all student assistants. We wanted that introduced in university bodies as a concrete issue. Student and research assistants account for about a quarter of the university employees, and if you consider research personnel, then it gets up to around 40 percent. But their position is worse than all the other employee groups.

In what ways, concretely, are they worse off?

Rahner: The pay is oriented to the minimum wage. There is going to be a pay raise now, but from our point of view, it’s still paltry. But that’s not the main issue in our position statement. Assistants aren’t included in any wage agreement. That means clearly they have less vacation, their sick-pay is poorer, and they don’t receive extra pay for weekend or nighttime work, and notice and severance terms are very short. So, where wage contracts go above and beyond the minimum legal standards they’re worse off across-the-board. Assistants just don’t benefit from that at all. That’s why we’re supporting an adjustment of the working conditions.

You’ve both worked as student assistants. What were your experiences?

Rollberg: In terms of cooperation and feeling valued, my experiences were always very good. Nevertheless, I always noticed from little things that you’re really not fully integrated structurally. For example, often, only snippets of information from the Staff Council reach assistants. And the Staff Council is clearly limited in its powers to represent assistants.

Rahner:  Or with the “corona bonus”. I’d say that without the assistants, a large part of online instruction would’ve just collapsed in many areas. Nevertheless, the assistants didn’t get a corona bonus because that was only negotiated for people who are working on contract. That’s not fair. The poorer working conditions also have a social aspect. If you’re a student who needs to work to get by, then you frequently can’t afford to take a job as an assistant. That means the opportunity to enter into a research career may not be an option. And the university loses potential young academics.

But the positions statement itself doesn’t change the working conditions for assistants yet. What happens now?

Rahner: The Senate’s position statement is, according to how we see it, the first public appeal from a university to the state government to improve the working conditions of assistants. We hope that gives the issue new momentum. The state government has the opportunity to negotiate a wage agreement, or it could apply the model contract of the Science Ministry as a template. It already forms the basis for employment contracts.

Rollberg: The financial situation of the universities is precarious in general. Understandably, everyone is trying to protect their budgets for instruction. All-in-all, more pressure has to be put on the state to provide the universities with better funding. Then, the chances of improving the assistants’ situation will be better. The position statement openly and expressly invites other universities in the state to join in the demands.

What were the first reactions to your initiative?

Rollberg: During the first talks with members of the other status groups, initially it was met with reservations by some. That’s when we noticed, we’d have to look closer at the objectives and interests of the other status groups. Step-by-step, we were able to come to a joint result in the talks. We arrived at a well-rounded formulation that a large majority could support. That was a good experience.

Rahner: We also cooperated closely with representatives from the Staff Council. That was very important to us. And there were a few strong voices of professors who supported us.

What were the fundamental experiences you had in cooperating with other status groups in the Senate?

Rollberg: As has already been implied, that was genuine political work. It was about differing interests and views and the question of if and how it would be possible to concur. In a body like that, naturally there are very different personalities. I found it exciting to learn how you approach certain issues and get a person’s ear.

And how do you do that?

Rollberg: By maintaining a united front and being very well-prepared rather than just making spontaneous emotional outbursts. And you can’t be intimidated by different opinions, either. Then, you can work things out for the whole university, together.

Rahner: According to what I’ve seen, at first it often does appear as if there’s an orientation based on a representative’s status group. But depending on the issue, other majorities form that go beyond the status groups, with respect to questions of equal opportunities and parity, for example. There aren’t fractions in the Senate like there would be in a parliament. Instead, there are many individuals who have their own opinions.

What would you advise students who want to get involved in university politics?

Rollberg: The most important thing I find is that you need to be interested in the problems and issues that an institution of higher learning faces. Not just for yourself, but for all the students and the whole university. Then getting organized and working your way in takes a relatively large amount of energy and time, but it’s useful. That shouldn’t frighten anyone off. If you trust in your own experiences, network, and get support you can achieve a great deal as the voice of the students in a body like the Senate.


“Position Statement of the Senate of the University of Freiburg Regarding Working Conditions of Student and Research Assistants” (in German)