Seeking Time to Get Tenure

A German law awaiting the president's signature is upsetting academics and prompting protests at a major German university. The law, which was approved by parliament in December, would impose strict limits on the time taken by academics to complete their doctoral studies and win tenure at a university. However, if it passes, thousands of untenured faculty could face difficulties in getting their contracts renewed.

Currently, aspiring German academics face some time limits on tenure-seeking and temporary research contracts, but a switch to a different university or institution resets that clock to zero. The revised law makes the clock cumulative, giving academics a total of 12 years to attain a Ph.D. and permanent university employment; the limit is 15 years for those in the medical sciences. The German government wants to prevent universities from keeping researchers on an endless string of short-term contracts, which it claims to be socially irresponsible. Researchers who have not been able to find permanent posts within the qualification period would have to try to extend their contracts under general employment law or leave.

Untenured academics say the law is unrealistic because many academics in Germany don't secure a permanent position within 12 or 15 years. They also expect that if the law comes into force unmodified, universities will not extend many of the temporary research contracts when they run out. So on 27 January, faculty members at the University of Bielefeld stopped teaching their classes and launched a week of protests.

The administration of Bielefeld University, where a very high proportion of academics would be affected by the new law, has called for a transition mechanism that will ease the pressure on those researchers. Nevertheless, Dieter Timmermann, head of Bielefeld's governing board, supports the law because it is expected to simplify the administration of the universities and create clearer distinction between the qualification term of young researchers and those carrying out research on temporary contracts.