Fewer social hurdles at universities of applied science
Michael Gille is convinced that there are fewer social hurdles at universities of applied science. Students speak to and deal with one another and their professors in less rigidly defined ways. Nonetheless, it can be easy to identify someone’s social background from the language they use in seminars and the length of time they need to complete their studies. Thanks to the practical nature of much of their work, first-generation students and doctoral candidates often feel more welcome according to Ann-Kristin Kolwes; and Michael Gille hits the nail on the head when he says that universities of applied science are where the non-elite rub elbows.
The permanent state of not belonging
The guest speakers repeatedly returned to the question of habitus, also when referring to their own educational careers. Her own experience of feeling that she had no one to ask and did not understand the rules of academia motivated Ann-Kristin Kolwes to work with Verein Erste Generation Promotion, a society for first-generation academics. Reyan Şahin describes the feeling of not belonging as a permanent one. In her eyes, the higher education system is a highly patriarchal, elitist, sexist, and structurally racist system. “Woman, migration background, artistic identity: Lady Bitch Ray. In a highly elitist system, contracts are simply not extended if someone is to be bullied out because they don’t belong,” says Reyan Şahin.
Structural problems in the research and higher education system
Şahin sees funding providers like foundations as only part of the problem. Structural problems already begin during studies at university. Above all, she condemns the lack of transparency and supervisory procedures that could effectively bring misconduct and discrimination to light. Ann-Kristin Kolwes is thus convinced that many good doctoral and early career researchers simply weed themselves out. “It is instilled in you that you have only to perform well to become a professor; but that’s not the case, because you also face discrimination and disadvantages. And as long as the system does not deal with this, nothing will change.” Ultimately, we once again come back to the urgent problem of choosing and appointing professors: those who have been in the system longer select doctoral and early career researchers, but—naturally—they are not free from their own prejudices or properly informed about unconscious bias (see the video on unconscious bias issued by the Royal Society).
However, this systemic problem does not only affect first-generation academics. As Annette Julius explains, “in some subjects, we have 120 people doing a Habilitation for a single professor. In other areas, there is such cut-throat competition that people get stuck in the system forever without alternatives. We must get better at seeing that you also need luck in this system. We have structures that leave young people in the academic system far too long and with no prospects for forging a career.”
Unconscious bias training for selection committees
The public also participates actively in the discussion—although the selection committee issue proves contentious. For example, Professor Sybille Bauriedl from Europa-Universität Flensburg points out that a professorship is not a matter of luck but a position awarded within existing power structures. This makes it all the more important for professors to show solidarity and become active in selection committees. Analyzing her own selection committee, Anette Julius makes an interesting observation: the more women there were in the selection committees, the worse (statistically) female applicants did. She points out that we urgently need to rethink selection criteria. Or, as another attendee (and member of diverse selection committees for the German Academic Scholarship Foundation) passionately argues, all selection committee members regularly need to have “this kind of discussion or training. Otherwise, the system will be self-propagating.” The foundation can already boast that 30% of its committee members have been trained—an outstanding percentage within Germany. Everyone, however, agreed about the urgency of expanding this kind of training.
At the same time, it is essential to increase the permeability of the entire German educational system, because the road to a selection committee is a long and arduous one. This requires everyone to get on board. As Ann-Kristin Kolwes makes clear in her closing statement, “we can only change things when we address them; when we empower. If I do nothing, if I don’t push for change, then no one will.”