The staff of a university includes many employment groups, such as professors, the academic middle tier, or administrative personnel. One group that may seem inconspicuous from an external perspective, and perhaps not immediately thought of, is that of student assistants. This may be attributed to the fact that these employees are not covered by the collective wage agreements of the federal states, except in Berlin, and also do not have representation in staff matters.

“A wage that is far too low, short contracts that have to be renewed constantly, the lack of participation rights: these are the typical working conditions of student assistants”

[translation by the author] (Hopp et al. 2023)

This quote is taken from a study illuminating the working conditions of student assistants throughout Germany. The collective wage agreements in Germany were renegotiated in 2023 and 2024. For the first time, the participating unions demanded the inclusion of student assistants in the agreements outside of Berlin (ver.di Hessen, no date). The last federal state to hold these negotiations was Hessen because it has its own collective wage agreement, the TV-H (Tarifvertrag für den Öffentlichen Dienst des Landes Hessen). The negotiations consisted of three rounds between the 14th of February and the 15th of March 2024. Efforts to include student assistants in the collective wage agreement were unsuccessful. Neither in Hessen nor the rest of the German Federal States. There have been concessions for an improvement though that will be discussed later in this blog.

Following these unsuccessful attempts to incorporate student assistants into the agreement, it is important to highlight the precarious working conditions of this group as their work directly impacts the day-to-day operations of universities. Student assistants play a vital role in the day-to-day operations of universities. They fulfill a wide variety of tasks: they conduct literature and internet research, obtain books from the library, enter data, lead courses for fellow students, supervise exams, prepare conferences, transcribe interviews, compile statistics, carry out laboratory work, monitor equipment, and much more.

A lot of student assistants are working unpaid overtime regularly and often they do not know that they have the same rights to paid sick leave or vacation days as other employees in the public sector (Hopp et al. 2023, 87 ff.). Additionally, these employees are excluded from the collective wage agreement (Tarifvertrag der Länder TV-L) in 15 out of the 16 German federal states. It is also common that student assistants are not represented by a staff council (Personalrat). Except in Berlin, there are no binding minimum contract periods (Vertragslaufzeiten) for the employment contracts of student assistants (Hopp et al. 2023, p. 33). Hessen is the only federal state that is not included in the TV-L.

It is important to mention that there are different types of student employees. Generally speaking, student employees can be defined as students who are working at universities and public scientific institutes and are enrolled at the same time. Out of these student employees, there are student assistants and research assistants (studentische und wissenschaftliche Hilfskräfte). Student assistants do not have a university degree yet whereas research assistants do have their first university degree. These definitions were made by Hopp et al. (Hopp et al. 2023, p. 19). However, there are different definitions throughout the federal states of Germany. In Hessen, for example, there are only student assistants and therefore there is no differentiation between the fact that they already have a degree or not. Before looking at the data on the working conditions of student assistants throughout Germany it is important to give a historical overview of movements and organizations trying to improve the working conditions and social situations of them. The demands for better working conditions and better pay started over 60 years ago and last until this day. There were a lot of achievements in the federal state of Berlin but not so much for the rest of Germany. This is why it is important to shed light on the history of these events

Figure 1: Milestones in the TV-Stud movement

In the late 1960s, student assistants in Berlin, as part of the ’68 movement (68er-Bewegung), were able to establish their own staff councils, a development not replicated in the other German federal states (Hopp et al. 2023;  Köhler 2018). In 1985, after strikes and protests, Berlin introduced the first collective wage agreement for student assistants (TV-Stud I).

 Its expiration was to lead to significant wage cuts and therefore it led to a public outcry, and a never-before-seen unionization resulting in the negotiation of an improved agreement (TV-Stud II) (Köhler 2018). To this day, the share of union members among student assistants in Berlin is twice as high as in the rest of Germany (Hopp et al. 2023).

In the past, there also have been initiatives in other federal states to include student assistants in the TV-L. But they were not successful. For the last negotiations of the public sector that were taking place in 2023, there have been initiatives all over Germany. ver.di and the GEW added the demand for the inclusion of student assistants onto their agenda (verd.di Jugend, 2023). An inclusion of student assistants in the TV-L did not happen but the negotiations resulted in a minimum contract period of one year and a minimum wage that is to be renegotiated in the next TV-L round (Tarifgemeinschaft deutscher Länder 2023). Even though not all demands, like the inclusion in the collective wage agreement, were met by the federal states, the results can be seen as a step in the right direction.

On this occasion, it is worth taking a look at the rather large research gap regarding the working conditions of student assistants. Initially, quantifying the absolute number of student assistants presents a challenge. Lenger, Schneickert, and Priebe estimated in their study from 2012 that there might be as many as 400.000 student employees in Germany (Lenger, Schneickert, and Priebe 2012). There is no official statistic on this due to the Federal Statistical Office not collecting data on student assistants anymore since 1997. In most cases, the responsible ministries of the federal states are not able to provide reliable data as well (Hopp et al. 2023). One more problem while trying to estimate the number of student assistants is the above-mentioned differentiation between student assistants and student employees throughout Germany.

Despite being a significant segment of university employees, there is limited research on their working conditions or the impacts that their inclusion of them into the collective wage agreements would have on them (Hopp et al. 2023).

There are some studies with a rather small number of participants focusing on specific universities. For example, one study was conducted at the University of Göttingen (Vogel 1970), and one was conducted at the University of Marburg (Regelmann 2004). Two larger studies included student assistants from all over Germany. Lenger, Schneickert, and Priebe (2012) questioned almost 4.000 respondents. In 2023 the, to this day, biggest survey was conducted by Hopp et al. (2023). All of these studies focused on the working conditions of student assistants. Hopp et al. were also able to show the impacts that a collective wage agreement has on working conditions by comparing the data from Berlin, where there is one, to the rest of Germany.

On this occasion, it is worth taking a closer look at the study “Young, Academic, Precarious” published by the iaw in 2023 (Hopp et al. 2023). In this study, 11.107 student assistants were asked about their social situation and working conditions, among other things. As the population of student assistants cannot be determined in its entirety, it was not possible to draw a random sample. The survey was sent out via various mailing lists of universities, unions, etc. To ensure representativeness, the composition of the sample was compared using a study by Lenger et al. and a social survey by the German Studentenwerk (Middendorf et al. 2017). There has never been a study on this scale before. This is supposed to give an insight into the backgrounds of the demands that were being made by the unions representing the student assistants in Hessen. Due to its unique situation, the federal state of Berlin can be cited as a positive example with a collective wage agreement for student assistants. The answers of the respondents from Berlin can be compared to the rest of Germany showing the impacts of such an agreement.

As previously noted, a significant research gap exists when it comes to the number of student assistants, their working arrangements, or their working conditions. The study was conducted in cooperation with the unions ver.di and GEW, the TV-Stud initiatives all over Germany, and the Institute for work and economy of the University of Bremen (iaw). There was a total of 11.107 respondents that were included in the survey which was conducted between the 30th of January and the 22nd of July 2022 (Hopp et al. 2023).

A significant portion of respondents do not utilize their vacation days, make up for their sick days, and work unpaid overtime regularly. When looking at Berlin for a comparison it is clear that working conditions improve a lot when student assistants are included in a collective wage agreement (Hopp et al. 2023).

The first important question is how one got their job. Outside of Berlin, more student assistants get their jobs through informal processes, such as getting personally approached by a professor or inquiring about a potential job by themselves. In Berlin, however, almost 60 percent of the respondents stated that they got their job after applying for it after seeing a job advertisement compared to 34% in the rest of Germany (Hopp et al. 2023; own calculations). This indicates that the advertising of jobs in Berlin is much more transparent and that there is greater equality of opportunity for applicants as a result.

 How did you get your current job?BerlinRest of Germany
Applied in response to a job advertisement58,70%34,32%
Personally approached23,70%43,79%
Inquired about jobs2,20%6,65%
Table 1: Job aquisition by student assistants (data derived from Hopp et al. p. 50; own calculations)

One really important factor in choosing a job is the motivation behind it. When asked about their motivation to work as a student assistant, a majority of 68,2% of the respondents stated earning money (Hopp et al. 2023). This is underscored by over 40% of respondents holding two or more jobs concurrently to earn their livelihood (Hopp et al. 2023). Even though employers recognize that the wage that is earned in a position as a student assistant is one way to support oneself within their studies, they do not recognize that it is the main source of income for these students in most cases (Hopp et al. 2023). It is rather viewed as a chance to be a part of the academic life at a university and to form an opinion about whether they would like to continue their career there after their degrees (Hessisches Ministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst 2011). When further looking at the data, only half of the student assistants have positive effects on their career as a motivation for doing their work (Hopp et al. 2023).

Figure 2: Motivation to work as a student assistant (Data from Hopp et al. 2023, p. 56)

The motivations behind taking on a job like this vary even more when considering the socio-economic backgrounds of the respondents. The higher the degrees of their parents, for example, the less important the motivation of earning money and the more important it gets to collect experiences in the field (Hopp et al. 2023). Students who have to earn their livelihood because they do not get (a lot) of money from their parents therefore have to rely on their jobs and cannot just view it as a chance to earn experience in their field.

On average, the wage from the student assistant job is the main source of income followed by the money that the respondents get from their parents (Hopp et al. 2023). This stands in contrast to employers seeing these kinds of jobs as a way to additionally earn money. There also is a significant difference in the total monthly amount of money that student assistants have. On average, student assistants have 975€ per month outside of Berlin. In Berlin, student assistants have 1.149,70€ per month on average (Hopp et al. 2023). These 160€ make a big difference in the everyday life of students. That is also underlined by the fact that far more students outside of Berlin fall below the threshold of being at risk of poverty as shown in the table below.

 MoneyBerlinRest of Germany
Monthly wage from a job as a student assistant613,21 €475,63 €
Total amount of money available each month1.149,70 €975,38 €
Proportion of student assistants who fall below the at-risk-of-poverty threshold64%79,55%
Table 2: Student assistant wages (data from Hopp et al. p. 64, 68, 69; own calculations)

Another factor that makes this type of employment so precarious is the nature of its contracts. Berlin has the longest contracts by far with an average length of about 14 months. The average for the remaining 15 federal states is 5,8 months (Hopp et al. 2023). Even though the average length is under 6 months, a lot of student assistants are holding their positions for much longer. As seen in the graph, 35,3% of the respondents are already holding their position between 6 and 18 months. About 15% are even working longer than three years (Hopp et al. 2023).

Figure 3: Since when are you working as a student assistant? (Data from Hopp et al. 2023, p.74)

That leads to the necessity to renew contracts multiple times. That is connected with a feeling of insecurity about the continuance of their position. It also happens that student assistants are to be working without a valid contract because it has reached its end and has not been renewed or has not been signed yet. On average 17,7% have worked without a written contract at some point (Hopp et al. 2023).

As already mentioned, student assistants often work unpaid overtime. On average, the respondents worked 9 hours more per month than what was regulated in their contracts (Hopp et al. 2023). Regarding the entitlement to vacation days, 6,8% of the respondents outside of Berlin stated, that their employers told them that they are not allowed to take days off. Almost 50% were never told that they had the right to take a vacation. As a result, 37,8% of all respondents never take days off (Hopp et al. 2023). Student assistants in Berlin are getting informed by their employers far more often. Over 72% were told about their entitlement to take days off. In Berlin, only 15% of the respondents make up for sick days, whereas 35% of the respondents from the rest of Germany catch up on their work after being sick (Hopp et al. 2023, p. 91). Working unpaid overtime regularly, not taking days off, and making up for sick days show that student assistants often do not know their rights as employees or are getting false information from their direct superiors.

 Information on vacation entitlementBerlinRest of Germany
Informed by employer72,50%49,20%
Not informed by the employer20%36,20%
Told that there is no entitlement to vacation1,30%6,80%
Making up for sick days  
Table 3: Vacation and sick days (data from Hopp et al. p. 89, 91; own calculations)

The longer student assistants work in their employment relationship, the better they know their rights. They work less unpaid overtime, it is more likely that they take all of their vacation days and they make up for sick days less frequently. Also, the longer one works in the same position, the more likely it is that their superiors educate them about their rights within their job. (Hopp et al. 2023) The prevalence of employee rights violations among student assistants suggests a systemic issue rather than an isolated occurrence. Recent negotiation outcomes in the TV-L states and in Hessen of raising the minimum length of contracts to one year and the monthly defined working hours to 40 hours, accompanied by a salary increase can be seen as a first step. But as the case of Berlin suggests, full inclusion in the collective wage agreement holds the potential for substantial improvements in their working conditions and socio-economic situations.


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