German hiring spree for ‘digitalisation’ professors

Caught up in a national anxiety about falling behind technologically, universities have recruited hundreds of new professors including data experts and digital humanities professors

November 18, 2019
Source: Getty

German universities are on a hiring spree, recruiting hundreds of new professors linked to “digitalisation”, covering areas such as big data, the digital humanities and the digital economy.

More than three in 10 new professorships established by German universities in 2018 had an explicit focus on “digitalisation”, according to an annual survey of university heads, equating to up to 750 new positions.

Antonia Kröger, one of the authors of the latest edition of Germany’s Hochschul-Barometer, said that the results were “striking”.

This upsurge in recruitment has been driven by “digitalisation initiatives” launched by German states that include hiring new academics, explained Dr Kröger, a scientific adviser at Stifterverband, an educational organisation that jointly conducted the research.

For example, Bavaria, Berlin and Baden-Württemberg have all launched initiatives to recruit digitalisation academics in recent years, she said. Earlier this year, Lower Saxony said that it would fund 50 new professorships focusing on digital transformation.

The figures appear to show that universities are not exempt from a particularly acute German fear about the impact of digitalisation or digital transformation, terms that can be something of a catch-all, but often centre around a fear of falling behind technologically and losing economic strength as a result. The magazine Spiegel asked earlier this month: “Will Tesla and Google Kill the German Car?”

The need for digitalisation has become a constant refrain for politicians, with the federal government pledging tens of billions of euros to fix famously slow internet speeds.

“Digitalisation is everywhere, and everybody sees the need or feels pressured to cover it,” explained Key Pousttchi, professor of business informatics and digitalisation at the University of Potsdam.

The German government’s artificial intelligence strategy could increase numbers further. At the end of 2018, following similar strategies by other countries, Berlin announced an AI strategy that would “create at least 100 additional professorships for AI to ensure that AI has a firm place within the higher education system”.

At technical universities, the hiring spree has been particularly intense, with 37 per cent of new professorships focusing on digitalisation in some form, according to the survey.

The survey also found that German universities are pivoting towards digitalisation as a research topic: almost three in 10 leaders of state universities of applied sciences said they would increase their focus on digital transformation. University managers were far more likely to be planning a research shift towards digitalisation than environmental sustainability, the survey found.

But, warned Professor Pousttchi, there was often a lack of clarity over what universities meant by digitalisation. “Most people do not have a clear definition in mind and neither overview nor understand the underlying technologies and concepts as well as their impacts,” he said.

“Given that, which qualification do you require if hiring a professor for the subject x-y-z who covers digitalisation of or within that subject? And here, the answer is: ‘We don’t know.’ And most of the time, there might be nobody in the hiring committee who does.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities

Reader's comments (1)

What were all these hundreds professors doing before they were hired? Sitting around waiting for their true worth to be recognised?