Hochschulreform: The Never Ending Debate, Part 2

Last week, in the first article in this two-part series, Sabine Steghaus-Kovac summarised the ongoing debate about Germany?s academic reform and its consequences for young scientists. In the second article, she asks how Germany?s research funding agencies and university rectors think the reform law will influence the training of young scientists.

The protests of academics about the federal university reform law that came into force in February have now calmed down. Indeed, the fears about the new regulations on temporary employment are a mystery to some university officials. "We cannot understand the horror scenario of imminent mass unemployment of scientists at universities", say Klaus Anderbrügge, chancellor of the University of Münster, and his colleague Marina Frost of the University of Göttingen. The two were speaking after a meeting of 120 university chancellors and directors of human resource departments that was held recently to discuss the new regulations. Instead, Anderbrügge and Frost believe that the changes clarify the employment situation, both for young scientists and for universities.

A bonus of the new system, according to other university administrators, is that it obliges researchers to make an early decision about whether they intend to pursue a career outside or inside academia. Of course, such decisions have always had to be made, "but until now at a later time", points out Hanns Seidler, chancellor at the Technical University of Darmstadt: "Indisputably, this made the reorientation for researchers in the job market much more difficult."

Most German research organizations have also welcomed the idea of restricting the academic qualification period to a total of 12 years. But the plenum of the university rectors? conference ( HRK) in February of this year took the scientists? protests and reservations about the new regulations for temporary employment seriously. The HRK--like other science and trade union representatives--demanded interim arrangements for researchers who started their academic career under the former regulations. The university rectors pointed out that lifelong, project-financed scientific careers without tenure were becoming increasingly important in Germany and worldwide and demanded that the legal regulations be adapted to reflect this.

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft * ( DFG), Germany?s main research funding agency, assumes that under the new law DFG-financed project research will not be restricted. "A requirement [for funding] is that the new regulations of the university reform law (HRG) are applied in a research-friendly manner by those responsible in universities and research institutions", says Rembert Unterstell of the DFG. The research agency highlights its responsibility for young academics and the researchers employed in temporary projects. It has published a statement on the new legislation and has announced that it will keep an eye on developments and support legal adaptations if necessary.

More than 2000 young scientists have already called the research ministry?s ( BMBF) hotline (telephone 0800-2623474, Monday to Thursday 8-16 h, Friday 8-15 h) to ask how the new regulations will influence their personal situation. Bettina Bundzus of the BMBF admits that many university administrations, too, are still not sure how to apply the new regulations provided by the general industrial law and the law for temporary employment. A report by Ulrich Preis, professor of social legislation at the University of Cologne, outlines the approach to temporary contracts to be taken after the qualification period. The federal ministry for research, representatives of the research organizations, and law experts have also developed recommendations in order to clarify the scope of action required by university administrations.

"We will check every single case after the total of 12 years", says Oliver Herrmann, legal adviser of the personnel department at Bielefeld University. Although "up to now we have had no serious problem cases at our university", he admits that it might be difficult to find new reasons for repeated temporary employment of a scientist at the same institution. In cases where the reasons for temporary employment appear to be pretexts, and there is a permanent need for the scientist?s work at the research institution, researchers might try to sue for permanent employment at a labour court. "It is questionable how the labour courts will decide then", Herrmann says, adding, "We?ll do everything within the legal limits and we?ll see whether the scientists will sue."

The reform law also represents a great change for the Max Planck Society ( MPG) which employs 50% of its 3000 scientists on temporary contracts. Rüdiger Willems of MPG?s personnel department is optimistic that the new situation for temporary employments is manageable, even though the risk of labour court suits cannot be neglected. "It will become common practice to check whether there is a convincing reason for a temporary contract after a total of 12 years", he says. Willems believes that for young scientists at his institution, the new regulations are more likely to broaden their job prospects. It takes an average of only 3 years for students to finish a doctorate at the Max Planck institutes, which means a total of 9 years is left for temporary employment at a variety of institutions after the PhD.

In March, the Science Council ( Wissenschaftsrat) invited experts, representatives of the main German science organizations, the federal and state research ministries, and protagonists of the public discussion on the HRG to talk about the prospects for the further development of the German science system. The participants agreed that--in addition to tenure and permanent employment--temporary employment in research projects at universities and research institutions after the end of the qualification period must remain possible. A number of models for the possible status of these researchers were discussed, from an employee subject to directives to a freelance entrepreneur. The representatives shared the opinion that problems arising after the qualification period can be solved more easily by a separate wage agreement for science (Wissenschaftstarifvertrag) than by further amendments of the university law or general industrial law.

Federal research minister Edelgard Bulmahn admits that some university administrations have used the new regulations as an excuse to dismiss scientists, which was not the intention of the reform law. Her ministry plans to include a clarification in the 6th HRG draft that is to pass the Bundestag before summer: Young scientists who have started their PhD or Habilitation under the former regulations can be temporarily employed until February 2005 if this is necessary to finish their theses. But in spite of the protests, the minister is sticking to the new regulations for temporary employment after the period of qualification. (See Bulmahn?s comments to Next Wave Germany on the HRG here.) According to discussions with law experts, any changes would neither be useful or necessary because industrial law gives sufficient opportunities for temporary employment in research projects. "We do not want a special provision for the scientific job market that would permit a far reaching circumvention of protection against dismissal", Bulmahn points out. "Temporary contracts from career start until retirement cannot be accepted as the normal prospects of life for young scientists."

* The DFG is a sponsor of Next Wave Germany.

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