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Explainer: how Europe does academic tenure

Germany’s universities have two academics classes: professors and everyone else. meironke/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Explainer: how Europe does academic tenure

The word “tenure” is usually associated in universities with job security and professional autonomy. It is a term familiar in North America, where the notion of a “job-for-life” for professors who achieve “tenure” has come under pressure in recent years, most recently in a legal case in Wisconsin. But across Europe there are a variety of different employment tracks through which academics can reach professor level.

I have had the pleasure of working as an academic in three European countries – Germany, The Netherlands, and the UK – each of which highlights some of the alternative options to the tenure-track model in the US.

Germany – a two-class system

In the 1990s, I began my academic career in Germany – a country well-known for its strong welfare state tradition and labour protection. In universities things were and still are different. Academics are basically divided into two classes. On the one hand, professors are employed as civil servants of the state and hold tenure as a highly safeguarded employment for life. On the other, there is a much bigger group of “junior staff” on fixed-term contracts, research grants, fellowships, and part-time jobs. In 2010, 9% of academic staff were professors, 66% were “junior staff” (including doctoral candidates on contracts), and 25% were other academic staff in secondary employment.

Permanent positions below the professorial level are rare exceptions. Becoming a professor therefore means a big step up in terms of status and job security while the road to professorial tenure is long and windy. In many subjects aspiring academics follow a patchwork career for more than a decade, busily preparing their “Habilitation” (a kind of broader second PhD thesis) and eventually achieving tenure – usually at another university – in their early 40s. For all universities, in-house promotion to a professorial position used to be legally forbidden.

For decades, the structure of academic careers formed a highly debated topic in Germany. Various programmes were developed to temporarily support “junior staff”. New positions for untenured “junior professors” have, for example, been inspired by US tenure-track models. They are expected to work more independently from the full professors; and some of them might even get promoted to tenure in-house. However, the basic logic of the two academic classes persists and things are not getting better for junior staff: fixed-term contracts, part-time contracts and research grant-based contracts are all on the rise.

The Netherlands – different tracks

At the beginning of the new millennium, I continued my academic career as a tenured professor in the Netherlands. Some things were and are clearly different in the lowlands. Professors are civil servants but no longer employed “by the Crown”. In the 1980s, staff responsibility had shifted to the university as an employer and to collective bargaining.

The meaning of “tenure” is different as well. Since the 1980s, tenured staff in the Netherlands no longer have a guaranteed lifetime job and can be dismissed, for example, because of redundancy. These dismissals entail a lengthy, time-consuming and expensive procedure. Compared to Germany, there are considerably more permanent positions for lecturers and main lecturers below the full professorial level.

Tenure can be achieved after a probationary period of a few years and in-house promotion from lecturer to main lecturer is quite common practice, and is based on individual assessment. It is also quite common for main lecturers to stay on in their position until retirement. It was a stunning experience for me as an academic who had been socialised in the German system; except perhaps for the shared suspicion in both countries that it was somehow “odd” or “bad practice” to promote an existing staff member to a professorship from within the same university.

While I was in the Netherlands, universities started to experiment with new ways of promotion inspired by the US tenure-track model. Practices differ among universities and tenure-tracks do not always provide a route to a professorship. Such tracks also eventually extend the pathways to “tenure” and promotion and raise the bar of performance expectations – especially as regards the hazardous business of grant-making. It seems that life is getting tougher for promising young academics.

United Kingdom – legal tenure doesn’t exist

Recently, my academic career brought me to the UK – a classical example of a more regular career system that neither followed the US tenure-track system nor the German “junior staff” system. The long-established system of lecturer – reader – professor allowed for “tenure” as a young lecturer after a probationary period as well as for an in-house career to higher ranks given successful assessment.

The UK did away with tenure in the 1980s. Alexander Kachkaev/flickr.com

This essentially still holds true until today. Over recent decades, UK higher education has experienced major changes in regulation and funding that also affect academics’ status and career. In the late 1980s, much like in the Netherlands, all academic staff became employees of their institution and the government passed legislation in 1988 to eliminate tenure.

Legal tenure has therefore faded away and has been replaced by permanent or indefinite contracts that can be due to redundancy, sometimes avoided by voluntary redundancy or premature retirement. Academics who worked in the UK’s former polytechnics, which all became universities in 1992, never had tenure but rather fixed-term or indefinite contracts. In the pre-1992 universities, performance expectations for promotion are due to local variations but overall the bar has certainly been raised over time.

The tough race to do well in the UK’s national research evaluation exercise, the REF, and the various other rankings and league tables, plays out in individual performance expectations for “tenure” and promotion. Over the years, the use of fixed-term (and part-time) contracts for teaching staff and of fixed-term research posts has established a shadow market with limited opportunities to rise up the traditional academic career ladder. In this respect, the development in the UK has some resemblance to the growth of a shadow market of non-tenure track faculty in the US.

The Netherlands and the UK show that university systems can be highly productive while providing early “tenure” to their academic staff. Germany could certainly learn from these experiences. But tenure is no longer what it used to be in the UK or the Netherlands. The bars of performance expectations are also raised and the number of academics who are not on the main career track is increasing. As funding becomes more competitive and insecure, universities turn some of their risk over to academic staff.