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Court Rules Against Reform for German Academics

Germany's highest court Tuesday scrapped a 2002 federal law intended to make German universities more competitive by speeding up the process of obtaining a professorship. Critics said the law infringed on states' rights.


Younger academics used to wait years to become professors

The ruling does away with so-called "junior professorships" the federal government introduced to replace a Germany's unique system of Habilitation, which requires post-doctoral researchers to work with tenured professors for several years and complete another thesis before they can become professors themselves.

Saying that the old German system prevented people from competing on an international level, the Social Democratic-Greens government decided to allow scholars to become professors immediately.

According to the new law, they were able to hold the position for up to six years before having to move on to a regular professorship. The new system was expected to replace the old in 2010.

Some states resist federal involvement

Uni Hamburg belegt Spitzenplatz bei privater Förderung

Currently, most German professors are at least 42 years old

Several state governments -- Bavaria, Saxony and Thuringia -- had criticized the change for a number of reasons: They complained that the federal government had infringed on state rights to determine educational policies themselves -- an argument five of eight judges at Germany's constitutional court agreed with in ruling against the law.

Government officials were quick to point out that the judges had only ruled against the federal law without calling into question the concept of junior professorships itself. German Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn said she expected state governments to act now and implement the change.

Berlin vows to stick to program

Several states have already done so. Berlin state government officials on Tuesday said they would stick to junior professorships and lobby for the program with other states.

BVG - Urteil zur Juniorprofessur Edelgard Bulmahn

Edelgard Bulmahn inside Germany's constitutional court on Tuesday

Bulmahn (photo) added that the federal government's jurisdiction over universities had to be expanded for German academic institutions to stay competitive internationally. She said a committee currently working on reforming Germany's federal system should address that issue as well.

Supporters of the junior professorships also said the ruling would hold them back as compared to academics in other countries that don't have to spend valuable years as assistants to another professor.

Humboldt Universität in Berlin

Berlin's Humboldt University

"This way we're never going to get competitive internationally," Claudia Kemfert, an economic scientist at Berlin's Humboldt University, told DER SPIEGEL newsmagazine. The 35-year-old recently became Germany's first junior professor to move on to a regular professorship.

A lack of funding?

But critics also lamented a lack of adequate funding for the positions. Universities had received about €180 million ($219 million) for up to 3,000 junior professors. So far, only 933 positions exist.

"That's definitely too little money," Katharina Reiche, an education policy expert for the opposition Christian Democrats in the German parliament, told Berliner Zeitung.

While saying that junior professorships were not necessarily a bad thing, Reiche added that her party planned to undo the abolishment of the Habilitation, which should remain as an alternative option.

Demonstration gegen Studiengebühren in Frankfurt

Students in Frankfurt protesting against proposed university fees

Constitutional court judges are also expected to rule on a prohibition of university fees later this year after several states who would like to charge students had complained about the law.

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