Story behind the Passage
Today has been a wonderfully warm, sunny, and pleasant — almost summer — day — in Germany. But you know what? Now I am really close to exploding. This is because I just had a conversation with an international graduate student who shared part of her story with me. Of course, I will not give any indication of who this was and you can be sure that this was not the only story I have heard of this kind. I have been working closely with international students and Ph.D. candidates from non-EU countries since 2013. I know quite a few stories that people inside and outside academia would not believe they ever happened in Germany. But they do, on a daily basis.
So, are you getting why I chose this title for today?
Germany currently ranks fourth in the list of countries with the highest GDP. And yes, there are all kinds of other statistical games that you can play with variables that are more telling about the actual situation of the people. But that is not my point. I know that other experts are writing about social policy making and poverty every day. What I simply want to raise awareness of today concerns the situation of international academics, especially Ph.D. students and postdocs. They come to us from countries with significantly worse education systems and respective funding situations. With all their energy, discipline, and brain, they qualify to get accepted into some usually highly competitive programs at a German university.
And then, what happens?
The struggle only begins! No, I am not talking about actually writing a Ph.D. thesis (dissertation). This would mostly be a piece of cake if that were the only thing they would have to worry about. Instead, they enter a daily fight about survival. I mean it. If you live below the poverty line, have healthcare that does not cover your basic medication needs and are facing the constant fear of losing your visa every month — is that a condition in which you focus on your academic work? Of course not! But this is the reality. It is not just some exception. I have been hearing these stories (and many more including sexual harassment and emotional violence) for years now. Yes, many of these issues do not only concern students from abroad (sadly) but you have to see that these things become significantly worse if:
- You are the only one in your family in Germany
- Your parents at home (far away) struggle for survival as well.
- Your family members are facing political violence and suppression.
- Your home currency has been losing its value by more than 400% in less than three years.
- You cannot transfer unlimited amounts of money to/from your home country.
- You have trouble opening a bank account in Germany because the bank requires many months of previous salary evidence.
- You cannot find a place to live because you cannot afford the rent and/or landlords do not rent to foreigners.
- The internet in your home country is bad and/or censored and you cannot even talk to your loved ones in a safe space.
- Whatever activity you get involved in, you always ask yourself: Will this put my family in danger because our regime opposes this?
There is no point in going on because the list would be endless. And, yes, this is happening in this highly industrialized country called Germany which is so proud of its thinker and poet tradition. Bullshit! This country has been treating its brightest talents like shit for many years — even decades. Again, this does not only apply to people from abroad. To make this very clear, I am not pursruing any accusations of racism here, i.e., I am not blaming the state for intentional discrimination. This is VERY IMPORTANT because there are so many people who usually follow this path when writing stuff like I am writing now. That is totally fine and valuable. But for me, the fact that Germany can indeed be considered a banana republic is most certainly the consequence of many executive mistakes in the state apparatus. Yes, the consequences might feel and look like discrimination but the roots are probably: Lack of awareness + incompetence + inability to change bureaucratic decisions that would improve the situation.
So, let me get deeper into the banana republic definition now.
“a small, poor country, often reliant on a single export or limited resource, governed by an authoritarian regime and characterized by corruption and economic exploitation by foreign corporations conspiring with local government officials.” Obviously, we are not small and poor, at least not in the monetary sense (in the moral sense one might debate this…). The “limited resource” that is being managed, contrary to the original notion one has in mind about developing countries that might only export bananas, Germany is also highly reliant on one resource: BRAIN!
Our economy of invention, engineering excellence and progress rests on bright minds. This is exactly why it is such a shame that we are actually treating Ph.D. students and advanced scholars like shit while at the same time smiling at them and pretending to be helpful. You know what? Action helps, not words. The sad part is: There is such a huge dilemma because these students have no lobby. Yes, you see people lobbying for refugee rights every day on television. But who is lobbying for Ph.D. students? And you know why this is? There is one general answer: Power! But that is too easy and too general. The dilemma is actually also caused by pride and self-worth. If you consider yourself a scholar, you are ashamed to admit that you have 0 money on your bank account, psychological problems and basically only 15 square meters to live in. The reason for the shame is the public image of intellectuals and academia!
The bright and rich are supposed to “live” and work in the Ivory Tower. I know, for people inside, they have known and written about the fact that it actually is very different for a long time. Still, I think especially with Covid and the many talkshow professors now (and they do a terrific job, no doubt), the public image is not necessarily changing that much when we relate it to power again. If epidemiologists are the ones telling politicians what to do (even though both sides rightfully deny this), there is power in being a scientist/academic. And for the not-so-academic public, there is no real difference. Professors are just these people who know a lot and talk a lot and probably get a lot of money.
At least the last issue is not true.
Even tenured professors do not get nearly as much money as people in business without any Ph.Ds. But I do not want to compare this. I simply want to get back to the issue of those junior scholars who have no paid positions at all, who do not even hold scholarships and who, also due to legal restraints, cannot even freelance freely to improve their situation. Their parents are supporting them, if they can, or their siblings. This is because relatives still believe in the fact that getting an advanced degree in Germany is of value. But the reality they see is quite different. They might have other children that barely finished high school, never studied, but then got some practical training and have now advanced to some leadership position in a company that pays well. All this while their other daughter/sister is still working on a Ph.D. in Germany in his/her mid-thirties, with an average income of 1,000 Euros per month — from which you then have to subtract all the social expenditures, insurance, etc.
So, if we proceed to the part of the “governed by an authoritarian regime,” we see that bureaucracy takes the place of despots in Germany. This has been the case forever but now with Covid, people are starting to notice how shitty this is. This is a declaration of bankruptcy in and of itself. It is just a drop in the bucket to learn that this has also led to corruption by parliamentarians. But back to the point: The authoritarian regime of bureaucracy is especially hard on foreign Ph.Ds because bureaucracy functions in a very nationalist way — not just the ideology and the history behind the state system, also the practical stuff. Or did you ever read any bureaucratic forms that were EASY to understand and fill out? And just translating them into some different languages usually does not suffice! People with limited knowledge of German and no money to take upper-level language courses simply cannot understand rules and regulations of the bureaucratic regime.
So, what can be done?
“any exploitative government that functions poorly for its citizenry while disproportionately benefiting a corrupt elite group or individual.” Having said all this above, it should be clear why the government “functions poorly.” But it depends on who is included in he “citizenry,” right? Obviously, people who do not hold our passports are not citizens by law. But we should at least treat them that way in daily life, especially if these people are being trained in the univerisites that are funded with “our” tax money and geared to supporting our technological and social progress. Remember, they are here for studying, not for running around to public offices and treating mini heart attacks because their political status depends on elections, bomb attacks, and political personnel disasters abroad. But they do not have time for what they came for because they slip from one bureaucratic banana peel to the next — getting bruised.
So, since I am always taking a pragmatic approach to critical issues, I do not care so much about defining which “corrupt elite group or individual” benefits more. I am interested in how this can be changed. How can foreign students get proper health insurance, informed guidance, decent living conditions, enough money to buy food and not depend on Yum Yum noodle packs (I am not saying they are not yummy…)? How can we change the public image of what academia really looks like behind the veil of public admiration and intellectual tradition?
For the last issue, an answer could certainly be found by sharing stories about the truth of the state of academia in a banana republic. This would then also stop people from buying some Ph.D. titles in business or law because the image of academic degrees would have to stand the test of public scrutiny. But sharing stories is something you can do on a blog or in newspapers. It is something, for sure, but not enough. So, together, we figured out a way today, to create actual impact and relief. We came up with something that we can do — right now, right here, right in the networked age. We will start the
“Network of Hope”
1) What is your image of Ph.D. students? How do they finance their lives?
2) In how far is Germany a “banana republic” in your view?
3) If you were a leading politician in Germany today, which top three decisions would you immediately make?