In the rush to university reform, Germany's policy-makers risk throwing out the promising baby with the tired old bath water. Fundamental changes to Germany's academic system are urgently required. But unless the voice of young scholars is heard in the process, both the up-and-coming generation of researchers, and the universities themselves, will suffer.
The initiative wissenschaftlichernachwuchs.de was founded in December 2000 when government plans for reform of the university system became imminent. An informal organisation of graduates and postdocs from various disciplines, we believe that it is important to provide input into the current process. Our manifesto is entitled "Lost Generation?" because the new law introducing changes in academic employment and careers neglects the interests of the current crop of young researchers.
Indeed, it is our belief that academic reform as currently manifested is even threatening future academic careers. The manifesto, which has now been supported by more than 3500 people, was presented to Minister Edelgard Bulmahn on 31 May--with no visible effect. Nonetheless, in the absence of official representation of young scholars, wissenschaftlichernachwuchs.de is continuing to fight for recognition for our needs.
Six thousand new professorships, called "Juniorprofessoren" and inspired by the American assistant professor post, are planned. However, their implementation will annihilate a great number of existing positions for postdocs. The threat is particularly to those who have already got their second doctor's degree (Habilitation), and who are thus qualified for a full professorship, but who have not yet been appointed to such a position. In time we expect that most of these new junior professorships will be created by abolishing vacant senior professorships. Therefore, the number of full professorships will decrease, too, especially in the humanities, where already an applicant often competes with a hundred or more others for each post. These highly motivated and very well trained people, who have worked hard to assure their academic careers, are now considered too old! This is not simply an unfair redistribution of assets, but a waste of high-potential human resources.
However, the situation is not much clearer for the following generations either. Students who are about to graduate have to decide whether to get the second doctor's degree (Habilitation)--which, for a transitional period until 2009, will run in parallel as a qualifying route for a full professorship--or to apply directly for a post as a "Juniorprofessor." This is not a straightforward decision. Some representatives of the official council of German Universities, the "Fakultätentage," have announced that they continue to consider Habilitation to be the required qualification for a full professorship. Young scholars are left with the same long-lasting uncertainty about their economic and social future in Germany.
While the new law has disadvantages for the whole scientific community, certain groups look set to suffer particular discrimination. One of the government's primary intentions is to reinvigorate the academic staff population. As a mechanism for achieving this, the duration of the postgraduate period is limited to 6 years for a doctorate and 6 years of postdoctoral research. Academics who do not fit this idealised career path and do not achieve a full professorship during that time will be excluded. It seems that youth is to be valued over personal and academic experience. Women in particular will be disadvantaged, despite Edelgard Bulmahn's eager assertions, because 2 years are considered to be enough for the raising of children during the mentioned 12-year period.
Another major goal of the reform was to allow postgraduates to work more independently from their academic tutors in an earlier phase of their career. While wissenschaftlichernachwuchs.de fully supports this idea, we see trouble ahead because of the numerous obligations the Juniorprofessor will have to fulfil. According to the new law, a junior professor has to teach 4 to 8 hours a week; he or she has to raise money from funding programs or industrial sponsors (this is also taken into consideration for his further evaluation!); and has to work on his or her academic qualification, i.e., to publish a second monograph. This monograph differs from Habilitation because it is not combined with further examinations, and is evaluated only by the universities at which a person will apply for a full professorship after finishing the junior professorship. In contrast to the American model, the German Juniorprofessor has no option for tenure track. In short: He has the same duties as a full senior professor, but no chance to become a full professor at the university where he teaches as junior professor. In consequence, the motivation to identify with the university will be diminished, and the quality of research and teaching will probably decline. In fact, the students will once more be the victims of academic reform.
In general, the new law tends to follow the ideology of industry rather than to assure freedom of research and quality of teaching. It denies the different traditions and standards in the cultural, social, natural, and applied sciences by focussing mainly on the economic impact of knowledge. Wissenschaftlichernachwuchs.de does not deny the necessity of fundamental changes. But it points out the dangers of reforms which only take short-term economic purposes into consideration. The concept of the reform was developed in the days of the new economy euphoria, which has come down to earth in the meantime.
Wissenschaftlichernachwuchs.de has several pragmatic proposals for modifying the governmental draft to avoid the problems we foresee. The junior professorship should be provided with a tenure track to avoid the uncertainties mentioned above. Teaching obligations should be cut down to 4 hours a week, to leave enough time for preparation and research. Importantly, the current generation of postgraduates and their experience must not be excluded from universities and research institutes. One way of achieving this would be to transform the existing 4000 fixed-term contract postdoc positions into full professorships instead of annihilating them. To stimulate the desired injection of new blood, it would be helpful to introduce professorships funded entirely with new money. Such professorships would be assigned to highly qualified scholars and expire automatically when the holder leaves his position.