Germans go for balance

January 6, 2006

Only a clever mixture of happiness and work allows true intellectual self-fulfilment in modern society, German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno once wrote.

Adorno, the epitome of a self-confident scholar, rejected the idea that academics should distinguish between work and leisure, as most other people do. Would Nietzsche, speculated Adorno, sit in his office until 5pm, with a secretary taking phone calls, and then go off to play golf after work?

As they enjoy their Christmas and New Year break, German academics are unlikely to reflect on the philosophical complexity of holidays in their country. In a state with a strong federal tradition and a reputation for rigorous organisation, everything is meticulously regulated.

But behind the rules there is more than at first meets the eye. Generally, university professors, whose holidays are regulated by civil service law, and lecturers, who are employed by the university subject to wage agreements negotiated individually in the respective states, are entitled to the same number of holidays.

At age 30, they can take up to 26 working days' leave a year, increasing to a maximum of 30 for those 40 years and older.

Public holidays come on top of these, but their number varies between the different states. While academics in Catholic Bavaria enjoy thirteen extra days off, their colleagues in Protestant Berlin get by on nine.

Neither the unions nor the German University Association plan to lobby for an increase in contractual leave. On the contrary, a wage agreement reached in the state of Hesse in 2004 increased the number of hours lecturers work from 38.5 to 42 a week.

While professors are required to give a certain number of lectures each term and to be available for surgery hours, they can freely dispose of their time, and that of their assistants, and decide when to take their holidays.

But having contractual working hours could also be an advantage for mid-level faculty and research assistants, who often work on the verge of self-inflicted exploitation, according to Elisabeth Beltz, who chairs the staff board at Kassel University.

"If you have only a part-time job and are required to work far longer than you're paid for, you can pull the emergency brake and point to the number of hours stipulated in your contract," she said.

If that does not help, only tenure will. "Professors just have a different relation to their work - the distinction between working time and spare time simply doesn't exist in their minds," she said. "They go on holiday to do research and vice versa."

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