Facts on tenure track in Europe’s research universities

Universities in three out of 10 European countries do not have an academic tenure track – France, Spain and the United Kingdom – while in seven countries three basic tenure models have been implemented since the turn of the century, according to a survey by the League of European Research Universities, LERU.

The models – in Belgium, Finland, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland – are outlined in a paper on “Tenure and Tenure Track at LERU Universities: Models for attractive research careers in Europe” launched on Tuesday 2 September.

The paper is based on a survey of tenure and tenure track systems at 21 LERU universities, conducted by University of Freiburg Rector Professor Hans-Jochen Schiewer and Dr Christian Jehle, with support from LERU Chief Policy Officer Dr Katrien Maes.

It addresses the major issues of tenure track arrangements – how to attract the best and most creative minds to universities and how to “create reliable and projectable post-PhD career paths for young academics”. Also, attention should be on “providing candidates with equal opportunities and balancing existing gender-based disadvantages”.

Tenure track is defined as a “fixed-term contract announced with prospect of a tenured, that is, permanent position at a higher level, subject to positive evaluation and without renewed advertising of an application of the next position”. Usually the fixed-term contract is for three to six years or more.

The LERU paper uses its own and the European Commission’s four-stage classification of researchers’ career stages, with tenure tracks spanning the third and fourth stages.


Tenure track initiatives, LERU argues, are a good way for talented researchers to embark on an academic career. By offering attractive career prospects, tenure track enables universities to compete for talent internationally and helps to build a more mobile research work force.

In Europe there has until now not been a tenure track academic career system equivalent to those in the United States and Canada.

There, under “Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure”, an academic holding a junior title – for example, assistant professor – is on a contract that limits the number of years that can pass before the institution either has to promote the person based on evaluation of a variety of factors, or end their employment.

The LERU paper states that while the percentage of tenure track appointments has been gradually declining in the US over the past 30 years, the formerly rigid academic career models in Europe have opened up over the last decade – making the point highly relevant.

It clarifies the variety of European models of employment for junior academics, from the UK’s ‘probation-on-the-job’ model and the Central European ‘two-tier promotion and habilitation model’ to the French ‘centralistic state approbation model’ and the North American tenure track model.

The analysis reveals that France, Spain and the UK have not yet experimented with tenure track, while LERU members in the seven other countries have and are now in the process of learning from their experiences.

Some findings

The LERU survey found that tenure track was introduced for example at the University of Zurich in 2001 and at the KU Leuven in 2009. Other universities were Amsterdam, Freiburg, Geneva, Heidelberg, Helsinki, Leiden, LMU Munich, Lund, Milan and Utrecht.

The term-of-contract varied from three years in Milan to a maximum of six years in most of the other universities and up to 10 years in Finland.

There are some national regulations that are of general interest.

In Germany a common rule is that only candidates who have changed university after their doctorate or have been active as an academic at a different university for at least two years, are admitted to a junior professorship with tenure track.

In Italy, legislation in 2010 changed the employment system for researchers significantly. Research positions are no longer permanent, and a combination of a tenure track for researchers and a habilitation model for associate and full professors has been implemented.

The cumulative number of tenure track positions appointed by 2012 were 435 at the 12 surveyed universities, with the largest numbers at Lund (121), KU Leuven (101) and LMU Munich (80). The number of new tenure track position appointments in 2012 was 85.

On average in 2012 there were 43 academics on tenure track at LERU universities, although there was wide variation between them.

Five of the universities provided data on the accumulated success rate for granted tenure subsequent to tenure track up to 2012 – and all reported 100% success. But only Lund and Zurich universities had more than one case, Lund with 21 and Zurich with 14. The high success rates, LERU says, point to strong selection.

The total number of completed tenure track positions, however, is still too low to be able to give a reliable picture of how successful this recruitment mechanism has been. Universities, LERU says, are still learning from the first cohorts going through tenure track and are modifying the process where needed.

One indication of the degree of use of tenure track compared to appointments to tenured professorships is that the average yearly number of professors appointed at the 12 universities from 2008-12 was 385 – the highest number being at Lund (72) followed by Amsterdam (45) and Helsinki (43).

The University of Zurich reported that by 2012 all assistant professorships recruited on tenure track in the first years had been promoted to tenured professors. KU Leuven in 2013 had a total of 140 tenure track appointments, 40 of which were new. In 2012, Helsinki had 12 out of 46 professorial appointments made by tenure track.

At the time of the survey none of the universities had reached final evaluation stage.

In LERU member universities that have introduced tenure track, the appointment of professors is still a mix between the old and the new procedures.

The report does not deliver concrete information on whether a tenure track framework might be beneficial in reducing gender imbalances in universities. This is a pity, since it would have been easy to report gender in the survey.


LERU recommends to universities, governments and the European Commission that traditional academic career paths be opened up and innovative and alternative paths be developed offering attractive positions through open, merit-based recruitment.

This, it says, might lead to stronger integration of career paths, a better system of transparent and merit-based recruitment in Europe, and an open labour market for researchers in Europe that would be the basis for the European Research Area.

It could also result in less use of temporary positions at universities, more academic mobility and more mobility between universities and other sectors of society.

* There will be a breakfast launch of the advice paper at the European Liaison Office of the German Research Organisations (KoWi) in Brussels on Friday 12 September.