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Hochschulreform: The Never Ending Debate

The "scrapping of a whole generation", criticized historian Manfred Hildermaier. A "ban from the profession" for lecturers and researchers, railed his colleague Hans-Ulrich Wehler. Their criticisms of the university reform law (Hochschulrahmengesetz, HRG) were just part of the whirlwind of protest against the new legislation, which finally came into effect at the end of February. In newspaper articles, Ulrich Herbert, a member of the Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat) and a professor of history at the University of Freiburg, and other science representatives suggested that the HRG would lead to mass redundancies of scientists from universities and research institutions. "Irresponsible panic-mongering", replied federal research minister Edelgard Bulmahn. In a spectacular campaign, postdoctoral students in the faculty of history at the University of Bielefeld shredded their PhD theses, while external lecturers (Privatdozenten), instead of teaching, informed their students about their uncertain job prospects.

The HRG, which passed the Bundestag last November, requires state governments to implement the new regulations by 2005. Indeed, parts of the reform law are already legally binding for German universities and publicly funded research institutions such as the Helmholtz, Max Planck, Fraunhofer, and GottfriedWilhelmLeibniz institutes, thus affecting the vast majority of German academic researchers.

The stated objectives of university reform are to strengthen Germany?s science and research system, improve the competitiveness of German universities at an international level, and reduce the age at which researchers can become university lecturers. It replaces Habilitation--the procedure formerly required in order to qualify for tenure as a university lecturer--by so-called junior professorships, and it introduces performance-related payment for professors.

It can take quite a while to figure out what the complicated regulations mean. In essence, though, the HRG provides an academic qualification period of 12 years, starting upon registration for your doctorate. In medicine, this period is extended to 15 years. Students who were employed as temporary student assistants prior to their first degree not need worry--any such periods do not count as part of the 12 years.

The first half of the 12 years can be used to obtain the doctorate degree. If a researcher takes less than 6 years to complete his or her PhD, the "saved" time can be added to the period of temporary employment after the doctorate, the postdoc phase. It is intended for the second half of the period to be spent qualifying for tenure on so-called junior professor positions. In the ideal case, a researcher will get tenure by the time the 12-year period is over. Remaining in the academic system without a permanent position beyond the 12-year allowance becomes more complicated, because the more restrictive laws regulating temporary employment then come into play. The part time (Teilzeit- und Befristungsgesetz) and the general industrial law (allgemeines Arbeitsrecht) in force for industry and commerce also apply to contracts with academic scientists.

An extended qualification period of more than 12 years can be justified by maternity leave, leave for new parents, and leave for looking after relatives in need of care. Several extensions can be added, but because they are dependent on the employment status of each researcher during the qualification period, they must be checked by the university administrations in every individual case. In addition, up to 2 years can be added to the 12-year period if a researcher was employed by a German institution but in fact worked abroad or in industry during that time. Only temporary employment in Germany counts, so a postdoc in the United States--where the researcher is employed by the American university--does not use up any of the 12 years. In this case, 6 years, plus any "saved" from the PhD, remain available for temporary contracts at German institutions upon the individual?s return.

During the qualifying phase, universities and research institutions can employ scientists temporarily under contracts limited to a certain term without giving any reasons for the nonpermanent employment status.

Under the old system, doctoral students or postdocs could be employed temporarily for 5 years at the same university or research institution at the same level of qualification. After that term, a scientist could either get a permanent contract or they had to change research institutions or had to move to another federal state. Therefore many scientists who did not get one of the rare tenured posts practised their profession in academic "patchwork careers" on project-related research grants.

From now on, a scientist who has completed the 12-year qualification phase can work temporarily for 2 years for another research institution or university, but after 2 years at the same institution good reason must be given for continuing to employ the person on a temporary contract. Theoretically, therefore, it will still be possible to work on a series of temporary contracts, but finding new reasons for repeated temporary employment of a scientist at the same institution may prove difficult. Reasons for justifying such contracts could be, for example, temporary research projects or ongoing appointment processes to tenure or other positions, because the process of appointment to a full professorship can easily last 1 or 2 years.

Many advanced researchers who have not yet obtained a tenured position (e.g., the so-called Privatdozenten and Hochschuldozenten) now fear problems due to the bar on filling temporary positions in academic research after a total of 12 years. "This will cause a major migration of excellent scientists and science teachers from German universities into either industrial research or foreign countries", says Uwe Conrath, a plant physiologist at the University of Kaiserslautern. He assumes that under the former regulations, he would have been able to continue to find contract-based employment until he was appointed to a chair. Now he plans to leave the country with his family: "Though my personal work has increasingly been appreciated in the international plant research community, I won't be allowed to continue my work over here in Germany."

Jutta Heinz of the young scientists? initiative, fears that the risk of being left empty-handed after 12 years might deter young researchers from pursuing a scientific career at all. She suspects that the influence of the HRG on research and teaching in Germany will be both negative and complex. Scientists working in long-term projects will have to move on and be replaced in 6-year intervals, and researchers working on weakly institutionalized minor subjects or new research trends may not be permitted to continue their work. Also jobs in co-ordination, evaluation, interdisciplinary, and didactic tasks might get lost. Those of scientists like Ulrike Bandemer, for example. Bandemer, a 43-year-old mathematician who did her PhD 16 years ago, has worked since then on temporary research grants in the planning and analysis of research projects in medicine. Now she feels part of a "lost generation", because she cannot start another temporary post just by changing the employing university.

A resolution by demanding interim arrangements for the scientists affected by the HRG has already been signed by more than 10,000 academics. "Until now, there was also a considerable risk of not receiving tenure after many years of academic qualification", says Heinz, "but the new regulations are not appropriate to improve the situation."

Click here to read part 2 about the reaction to the reform law by German research funding organisations!

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