The End of Habilitation?

Last week, an expert commission recommended adding a new junior professor track and introducing performance-related salaries in German universities. If accepted by the German state governments, the Länder, the proposal would dramatically shorten the long apprenticeship period required of German university professors, which many claim reduces the international competitiveness of German universities.

Young scientists in Germany remain dependent on their professors for several years as they complete an extended postdoctoral qualification period called the Habilitation. Compared to their peers in other countries, German researchers must wait much longer to establish their own independent research programs. Consequently, they fall behind. "Habilitation is a strong competitive disadvantage for young scientists in Germany compared to other countries," says Peter Nick, who leads a research group at the biological institute at Freiburg University.

To streamline young scientist's career paths, the commission--composed of representatives from German universities, research organizations, the Volkswagen foundation, and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) appointed last June by the Federal Minister of Research and Education, Edelgard Bulmahn--suggests introducing a new classification: the junior professorship. These positions would allow academics to practice independent research and teaching at an early stage of their career. A young scientist may apply for a junior professorship immediately after completing a Ph.D. or after a 3-year postdoctoral appointment. Junior professors would have their own budget and equipment, and the authority to confer a doctorate. Upon receiving a positive intermediate evaluation after 3 years, junior professors can be appointed to a permanent position after 6 years without the Habilitation procedure.

The proposal could affect the careers of a large number of young scientists. In the report, the commission estimates that 6000 junior professorships will be needed to fill the vacancies of retiring university professors. But, according to Ulrich Battis, professor of law at Humboldt University in Berlin and member of the commission, the traditional way to qualify as a university professor is to be preserved as an alternative: "We did not say that Habilitation has to be abolished."

"Being a junior research group leader myself, I fully welcome the recommendation to introduce a junior professorship," says Anne Ulrich from the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Jena. She believes that an officially recognized status would help young academics to climb their career ladder in a more systematic and internationally compatible manner than is currently the case in Germany. "The chance to build up your own group and the challenge to organize yourself around a limited budget is good hands-on practice for the future responsibilities of a full professor," Ulrich tells Next Wave.

Despite widespread support for the proposal, it is not certain to be accepted by the Länder. "Because they have to be cost-neutral, the recommendations lead to a cut of the basic salary, which will make professorship less attractive, particularly at universities of applied sciences," says Hans Zehetmair, the Science Minister of Bavaria and representative of the Conservative-governed states in the conference of ministers of education (KMK). "I absolutely agree with the basic ideas of the service regulation reform, but I do not believe that there will be a majority in the Bundesrat for the recommendations in the present form."

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