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HU in dialogue – space for lively discussions on perspectives for postdocs at HU

The Berlin Higher Education Act (BerlHG), Section 110 and career prospects for postdocs and were the focus of a digital panel discussion at Humboldt-Universität on 9 December 2021

The Berlin Higher Education Act (BerlHG), Section 110 and career prospects for postdocs were the focus of a digital panel discussion held by the Humboldt-Universität on 9th December 2021. Around 160 interested parties followed the discussion between Prof. Dr Jule Specht, the literary scholar Dr Constanze Baum, the Vice President for Finance, Human Resources and Operations, Dr Ludwig Kronthaler, and the law professor and Dean of the Law Faculty, Dr Stefan Grundmann. 

The sometimes precarious work situation of young academics is nothing new. It has been addressed time and again; recommendations from the Science and Humanities Council on this matter have been available since 2014. The #IchbinHanna (“I am Hanna”) campaign then put a spotlight on the issue once again in the summer of 2021. The new Berlin Higher Education Act provides a mandatory option for postdoctoral researchers working in posts funded by university budgetary funds, under a professor’s budget, to have their posts made permanent. 

Opposing positions

During the panel discussion, the two opposing positions most commonly put forward in response to the new law were presented: while the heads of Berlin’s higher education institutions do not consider there to be adequate room for manoeuvre to implement the law, the representatives of non-professorial academic staff are happy to see an improvement in the work situation for postdoctoral researchers.

The psychologist Prof. Dr Jule Specht made the case for finding a common solution across all status groups as to how to “design the career paths of postdocs in such a way that they bring about high performance but are also socially equitable”. 

The Berlin Higher Education Act (BerlHG) has already been in force since this summer. It is therefore important, according to Specht, in addition to resolving this fundamental debate about the future structure of the workforce at the Humboldt-Universität, to get out of this limbo position and, instead, act now, since the pressure to act is immense.

The literary scholar Dr Constanze Baum agreed. She supports postdocs being given predictable career prospects that allow for planning and emphasised that academic life subsists on a diverse array of employment relationships: “The career goal in academia has to be different; it has to offer a variety of opportunities, and they have to be attractive.”

The Vice President for Finance, Human Resources and Operations, Ludwig Kronthaler, on the other hand, criticised the lack of a transitional arrangement and the absence of any financing commitment in the Berlin Higher Education Act and thus considers the higher education institutions to have been abandoned. “We have to ensure that we optimise the academic system so that the system as a whole remains in balance. This also means identifying and promoting the best possible young talent for academia.” Kronthaler also demands clear commitments from politicians and the provision of additional funds in the university system.

Prof. Stefan Grundmann, Dean of the Faculty of Law, also criticised the lack of a transitional period in the Berlin Higher Education Act as well as the lack of room for manoeuvre when selecting top young academics. “We want to hire those who have international appeal,” he stressed. With the new law, said Grundmann, this will no longer be possible for the next four years. 

This is how it continues: dialogue and working group to find solutions

The panel discussion took place in fishbowl format so that the audience could participate in the debate. This opportunity was taken advantage of by biophysicist Prof. Peter Hegemann, among others. “The question that we first have to clarify is that of what it is we are aspiring to: Do we want to remain internationally competitive?” If professors can no longer select young academics themselves and selection is instead carried out by the administration or the university, Hegemann considers this to be an undesirable development for the natural sciences. 

All sides were able to present their positions, and the audience members were involved in the debates and were able to ask questions. It is now up to the Humboldt-Universität working group on the subject of the Berlin Higher Education Act to determine how the law is to be implemented at the Humboldt-Universität.