The World from Berlin Ruling on German Academic Salaries 'Is a Disaster'

Germany's highest court has ruled that starting professors in Germany should be paid more in the future, arguing that the current system of performance-based salaries is unconstitutional. Editorialists at German papers warn the decision could prove expensive for the country's states.

Overworked and underpaid: Germany's highest court says the country's starting professors should be paid more.
DPA

Overworked and underpaid: Germany's highest court says the country's starting professors should be paid more.


Germany's highest court ruled on Tuesday that starving academics should be better paid -- at least if they are starting professors. The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe stated that 2005 reforms to professor pay implemented across Germany violated the principle of appropriate pay for civil servants. The reforms cut base pay and pegged additional wages to a professor's performance.

A chemistry professor at the University of Marburg in the state of Hesse brought the case to the court. The professor had been hired in 2005 at a base pay of €3,890 ($5,122) per month. He also received around €24 per month based on performance. Given the workload handed to the professor, he felt the remuneration had been unfair.

Under the 2005 federal reforms, starting professor salaries had been reduced by 25 percent and incoming academics were no longer guaranteed raises based on their age. Instead, they were to be offered supplementary pay based on their performance in order to make Germany's universities more competitive in academic terms. Universities are free to determine the criteria for the payments on their own.

In its ruling on the Marburg case, the court said the professor's pay was not representative of what a civil servant should make and did not make "an appropriate livelihood" possible. The court ruled, however, that performance pay remained permissible as long as those achievements were clearly defined, professors had a legal guarantee to receive them and that they could sue if they didn't.

In addition to Hesse, which must present new salary guidelines by Jan. 1, 2013, the ruling is also expected to affect other states. The lowest paid professors in Germany are in Berlin, where a starting junior professor earns €3,525 per month. A professor at the same level in Bavaria gets €3,890 and €3,924 in Baden-Württemberg.

On the editorial pages on Wednesday, German newspapers are split on the ruling. Some warn that it could prove to be extremely expensive for German states that are already grappling with a surge in the number of students seeking spots at the country's universities. Noting that German states have a choice over whether they classify professorships as civil servant positions or normal jobs, one national newspaper speculates that universities might move away from the special, job-for-life protections that civil-servant status entails.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Defenders of the idea of more 'corporate' universities celebrated when, seven years ago, Germany changed its system of professor pay to base it on performance. With that change, base salaries were reduced. Those affected have since had to improve their salaries through additional allowances. It was meant to create competition, attract the smartest academics, and put alleged underachievers on a tighter leash."

"But the lowering of starting salaries also created unfairness. It's logical that positions with managerial responsibilities should be higher paid. But the Constitutional Court also ruled, correctly, that it is unfair for the money to be spent on a small, coveted elite at the expense of providing all professors with an appropriate salary, or for additional pay to be provided for 'special services' that aren't better measured. The current system means that a professor who drives up the number of PhD students he supervises, by sponsoring hordes of doctoral candidates, gets the best opportunities. It also benefits those who follow the motto 'publish or perish,' the non-stop publication of articles of little relevance in the academic press in order to increase the number published by a professor. Because academic achievements can hardly be measured in any fair way, the blanket reduction of the base salary cannot be allowed."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"A short-term consequence of the ruling could be that, here and there, fewer professors are hired so that universities can pay the salary appropriate to the position, as demanded by the court. But in the medium term it is also possible that a growing trend towards strictly limiting the number of positions that are bestowed with official civil-servant status will continue to spread. For public employees in a weaker position who earn less than comparable civil servant positions and who will later receive lower pensions, there are no so-called 'traditional principles' (ed's note: the list of benefits and obligations for German civil servants). The high-court verdict could mark the start of a contentious remuneration system that would virtually eradicate the awarding of civil-servant status to new hires."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"When it comes to academic research, Germany recognizes that we can only ensure excellence when we also provide the best talent with excellent resources. But that can't mean that the vast majority of researchers and teaching professors are only given unattractive salaries. In the future, we will have to provide an academic education to an even larger part of the next generation in order to meet the needs of the business community. If we risk forfeiting quality, then we will shoot ourselves in the foot."

"At the same time, the ruling could have dramatic consequences in the short term because, if university professors on average have to be paid more and budgets remain the same, then the schools will have less money to hire enough professors. From now until 2020, the onslaught of students at Germany's universities is expected to grow. Viewed against the trend, there is no justification for the ruling."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"Those who receive a base professor's salary are in a humbler position financially compared with leaders in business and high-ranking public officials. But when the reform of professor pay was undertaken in 2005, part of the aim was to make good performance pay off. Since then, newly hired professors have been given the same salary and it is not based on their age. At the same time, they are able to receive additional pay based on performance -- for special achievements in research or teaching, for example. That was a very good idea. For one thing, it made it possible for universities to attract top researchers from abroad."

"Unfortunately, the government wasn't solely considering increasing incentives. It wanted to save money at the same time and placed a ceiling on the budgets for supplemental pay. But promoting performance is incompatible with austerity measures."

"In addition, the allocation of the extra pay lacks transparency and is partly arbitrary. No one knows the precise requirements and each university sets its own rules."

"(The ruling) will be expensive. The German states will have to get used to higher personnel costs. And the courts will have to prepare for a flood of lawsuits. But that is the necessary price for a performance-based wage system that also promotes performance. The state can't just promote research and teaching through excellence initiatives and then try to evade the fair and transparent remuneration of its researchers."

The left-leaning Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The audacity of the ruling would be hard to beat. There's no question that professors hired since 2005 should be earning more. But that's not what this case is about."

"First, the professors have practically issued a ruling on themselves. After all, almost all Constitutional Court judges previously served as professors. The long overdue reform of professorships had long been a thorn in their sides. Now they had the opportunity to strike back. The German government is saturated and ruled by officials with law degrees who are now cementing their own power and ensuring that it will be preserved in the future. All you have to do is read the keywords in the ruling to know what is going on between the lines: '(...) performance-based salary in line with civil service law.' The world is fast-changing and no one can hope to have the same job all their life. Everything is changing, but the professors are protecting themselves and the traditional civil-servant system from the unpleasant consequences of change."

"The ruling is a disaster for the area of public policy most in need of modernization: education. The court is sending out the unmistakable message that the civil-servant system at universities should remain just how it was when it was originally laid down by Frederick the Great (in the 18th century): lifelong and tied to the specific requirements of being present and loyal."

- Daryl Lindsey

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