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Facts, Not Rumours

German Version

The critics of Germany's university reform have recently received plenty of attention after rumours that the reform would lead to high academic unemployment rates started circulating. In her article, German research and education minister Edelgard Bulmahn (SPD) rebuts the criticism.

The purpose of Germany's new general university code, Hochschulrahmengesetz (HRG), is to create legal certainty for all affected scientists. With the reforms of the academic employment laws and the professorial salary groups, both the personnel structure and the path to acquiring academic qualification will be rearranged, and a more flexible and performance-related pay scheme for professors will be introduced. These substantial structural reforms will ensure the competitiveness of German universities and research institutions on an international level.

Together with the HRG amendment, the conditions for the conclusion of temporary employment contracts with those employed in the sciences and the arts have been modified as well. In the future, employees are eligible for a total term of 12 years (15 years in medicine), which should be used to qualify for a full professorship or another, nonacademic profession. In addition, scientists who have reached the 12-year limit of their qualification phase are still eligible for further temporary employment contracts.

In these cases, the bases for their employment are--as for every other employee in Germany--the general employment laws and the part-time and restriction law (Teilzeit- und Befristungsgesetz). These terms also apply to temporary contracts financed from external funding sources (Drittmittel), as well as for an employee's transfer from one university to another university or research institution.

These changes will end the currently common, but antisocial, practice of pretending to employ young scientists at a different university after the termination of their temporary contract without providing them with the opportunity to apply for a permanent position. In many cases, institute deans or university administrations have employed scientists temporarily using external funding sources without putting in place any career or personal development plans. Scientists thus employed are denied the prospect of a permanent position or--in time--opportunities for acquiring additional skills for a profession outside academia. Germany's leading experts on employment law, Prof. Thomas Dieterich and Prof. Ulrich Preis (University of Cologne), have proven that these practices have led to tremendous difficulties in terms of legal interpretation and delimitation. The HRG amendment will prevent this.

With a clearly defined, limited term for the qualification phase of young scientists in mind, the HRG changes will lead to a simplification of the practical handling of temporary contracts. Within the 12- or 15-year limit, the universities no longer have to make delimitations, such as defining from what funding or budget source the scientist is actually being paid. Therefore, the amendment leads to greater practicality for universities and research centres as well as more legal certainty for scientists. University rectors and presidents have specifically welcomed these new regulations in the HRG. DFG and the Max Planck Society consider them as practicable and proper.

Compared to the old laws, the qualification phase for young scientists will be extended. Currently, university employment on temporary contracts for scientific employees is limited to 5 years after the successful awarding of the Ph.D. degree. Until recently (end of 2000), a further temporary employment no longer than 2 years was possible, stretching the total period to a maximum of 7 years. The new HRG provides a 12-year period (15 in medicine), including the Ph.D. phase. A scientist who completes his or her Ph.D. thesis in 3 swift years * will have 9 years--instead of five--left for the postdoc phase in the future.

Furthermore, there is no need for special laws for science regarding temporary employment. The new law gives enough time for academic qualification; it is rather generously long than too short. On reaching the term limit, the qualification phase is over.

The transition problems can be solved--as Preis has shown--by means of the part-time and restriction law. If, for example, a Ph.D. dissertation has not been completed by the time the new law is enacted, a 3- to 4-year extension under the terms of the part-time and restriction law could be justified, even after reaching the maximum term limit.

Scientists whose contracts as scientific or artistic assistants are due to expire and who have already reached the maximum term limit are eligible for temporary contracts for up to 3 years as a transitional measure. In these cases, the universities can also provide a follow-up temporary position by using their budget for temporary employment.

Although critics of the HRG amendment cite many examples of scientists whose contracts are supposedly not renewed because of the new laws, the changes will actually provide better long-term security for young scientists than they currently have. A recent TV broadcast featured a scientist from the Institute for Tropospheric Research in Leipzig whose contract cannot be renewed. But she will lose her position not because of the recent amendments but because of the current laws: She has reached the current maximum term of 7 years. Under the new laws, she could be employed for 5 more years.

In order to create real legal certainty for affected scientists, it is necessary to give the administrations the ability to act in terms of applying the new laws as quickly as possible. Therefore, the Federal Ministry of Research and Education has established a telephone hotline, which can be reached at 01888-572005. Additional information is also provided on the ministry's Web site at

* Note by the German editor: A Ph.D. thesis in Germany does not require the candidate to follow a degree programme. The thesis is usually written over a period of 2 or 3 years. However, the average time to complete the thesis is longer than 3 years, often due to the fact that most Ph.D. candidates are employed in half-time positions that usually require them to work more than 20 hours a week without extra pay. For more information on Ph.D.s in Germany, please see the recent article in our Eurodoc Exchange series.

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