Europe needs tenure track to keep young talent, says EPFL head

Continental system is critical to stop drain to US, Patrick Aebischer argues

May 14, 2015

Source: Reuters

Upward mobility: leader calls for institutions where staff can rise on merit

The head of the highest ranked young university in the world has called for the implementation of a Europe-wide tenure track system to stop junior staff moving across the Atlantic to advance their careers.

Patrick Aebischer, president of Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne – which topped Times Higher Education’s 100 Under 50 rankings this year – said that Europe’s universities needed to create a “real market for faculty” or risk losing talented staff to the US.

During his keynote speech at THE’s Young Universities Summit in Dublin, he said: “For my generation, you had to go to the United States to make a name for yourself, to become a world-class faculty. I spent 10 years in the States.

“If we can, in Europe, compete so that the younger generation don’t feel it is necessary to go to the US, but that they can stay at our universities and make their way up the ladder, I think Europe will have won.”

He added: “My dream is to have a European-wide tenure track system for junior faculty. I think this is absolutely critical.”

Professor Aebischer cited EPFL’s decision to focus on faculty, including introducing tenure-track assistant professorships, as the “number one thing that has changed our institution”. He said such a system could be implemented by agreements between countries, although he said that “the last thing I would like” would be legislation on the issue.

Junior posts leading directly to permanent positions have been the norm in North America for many years, but they remain rare in some European countries – and this, Professor Aebischer said, had to change.

“We went to the States because that was the only way we could both become independent and make our careers. In Europe, you are much more the assistant to the professor than an independent professor…Europe does a good job for undergraduates but does not do such a good job at the graduate level.”

At EPFL, one-third of staff are in junior posts, and the rest have been promoted, said Professor Aebischer, who called this system “sustainable”.

“[Tenure track] was part of my aim to transform EPFL into a world-class technical research university,” he continued, adding that he was a “strong believer” in having more academics in permanent positions rather than throwing resources at one senior professor with scores of assistants. As a young institution, “you cannot immediately attract the best students…first you have to attract the right faculty.”

Professor Aebischer said Europe should focus on creating “nice places, where staff can go up the ladder according to merit”, that have a good funding system – “like it is in the US”.

“I think this is finally starting to happen in Europe; that’s why I want to put this tenure track together to give a chance to young Europeans to make their way up. I hope this will not just be in Western Europe. We have to include Eastern Europe, too.”

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