Talking leadership 30: Paul Pauli on academia in Germany v the UK

The president of the University of Würzburg discusses the differences between the two systems, why he’s joined a European university alliance and the benefits of interdisciplinary working

June 14, 2022
Paul Pauli, University of Wurzburg
Source: Nicolas Armer, University of Würzburg

German higher education gets a bad rap for having lots of red tape, but the UK can be just as bureaucratic, according to Paul Pauli, the president of the University of Würzburg in Bavaria.

“We had to write these notes about future plans for the next five years and so on,” he recalls of his time at the University of Southampton, where he worked as chair of clinical psychology research from 2000 to 2001. “This we don’t have [in Germany].”

The lack of five-year plans stems from a different approach to hiring, Pauli explains. In Germany, the process for hiring professors is protracted: a six-person shortlist is drawn up, and each person gives a presentation; the list is whittled down to three candidates, then sent to be evaluated externally and approved by the university president. The Ministry of Education even has a say in some appointments.

Once an offer is made, a period of negotiation begins, in which the professor bargains for their salary as well as conditions such as research assistants and equipment. It takes a lot longer than when applying for a job in the UK, but the plus side is that the set-up is more personalised once the job begins.

“In the UK, I was a full professor. I had no secretary, for example; it was the department secretary I had access to,” he says. “In Germany, it’s very clear that if you are a full professor, you have a secretary and you have from the beginning the research assistants that you negotiate for through the process.”

Once the candidate becomes a tenured professor, they have the autonomy to follow their curiosity – “if you’re a professor here, you have a clearer freedom, you don’t have to write a lot of plans” – but that can come with a downside for a university leader.

“I have very little power to really tell them what to do,” Pauli says. “We can only influence them by giving them gratitude or offering small rewards, but not by punishment. It’s very hard to take away things.”

He wouldn’t change this, however: “The positive side is that they can follow ideas which they think are important, even if it’s not mainstream.”

Recruitment in the UK is also more influenced by the national funding model, the Research Excellence Framework, Pauli says – although Germany is now moving in the direction of a similar research funding system. Southampton hired him because he had a high publication index, and it knew that having him on staff would serve the university well in the REF, he explains.

“So they invested money, and then had a very clear refunding of this, if they got to the higher level [in the REF] in my field. And they did it not only with me; they hired a lot of people from outside. This was a political decision,” he says.

Another difference is that in the UK, the more senior an academic becomes, in general, the fewer teaching hours they have, while in Germany it is the other way around. Across the country, on average, postdocs have to teach five hours a week, while a professor teaches eight to nine hours.

This is something Pauli thinks should be more flexible, and, in fact, a new law in Bavaria will soon allow for this if it passes this summer. It would mean that universities in the state would “have a global budget of teaching, and we can distribute it more freely and say: ‘This is more a person who is very good in research, less teaching. This is a person who likes teaching, [so they do] more teaching.’”

Alliances are the future

The University of Würzburg recently joined Charm-EU, a European university alliance made up of the University of Barcelona in Spain, Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Montpellier University in France, Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, Åbo Akademi University in Finland, and Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences in Germany.

The alliance is co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme and, for Pauli, there was a large financial incentive to join.

“More and more funding goes through the European community,” he says. “So if you are a single university, it will get harder and harder to get access to the funding of the European community, while these European university alliances will be in a privileged position. This is how we expect it will be.”

The rationale behind the European Union’s favouring of alliances is, he explains, that there should be easy exchange between students and academics across Europe. In the longer term, Charm-EU will have joint master’s and PhD programmes, and students and staff will move more freely between the member institutions.

A psychological approach

Pauli’s research area is psychology, and he has a particular interest in anxiety disorders, pain and addiction. He studied at the University of Tübingen and has had positions at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich as well as at the Technical University of Munich.

His path into psychology was almost accidental, however. He was initially interested in computer science, but, unsure if he wanted to “sit in front of a computer all day”, he applied to study both computer science and psychology. He chose psychology because the University of Tübingen was closer to home and his sister already studied there. Of course, he ended up in front of a computer anyway, but his interest in computer science may explain some of his passion for interdisciplinary working.

“The big changes and advancements, and the really big change moments, are often between disciplines. And that’s why you should look over across the discipline edges and collaborate,” he says.

He is particularly excited about collaborations between psychologists and data scientists and the revelations that big data could bring.

“We all know that there is no single cause for mental disorder. It always has multiple causes. To find how these multiple causes interact to lead to the mental [disorder], let’s say we did a huge study and we have genetic data, we have psychological questionnaire data, we have experimental result data, et cetera. And then you have to analyse this in a way to find out how the interaction of these data leads to the start of the mental disorder,” he says.

He has collaborated across disciplinary borders with colleagues in medicine, biology, engineering and the humanities and has served as spokesman for a collaborative research centre at Würzburg.

The future is rosy…hopefully

Looking to the future, how does Pauli see the direction of higher education in Germany? When Social Democrat Olaf Scholz took over as chancellor of the country in December, following 16 years of Angela Merkel, many promises were made. The new coalition published a political programme that pledged to increase funding for universities by 3 per cent each year from 2022, to increase government spending on research and development to 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product by 2025, and to create a “digital university” programme covering teaching, qualifications, infrastructure and cybersecurity.

Some believe that the government will not be able to fulfil every pledge. Does Pauli think it has overpromised?

“That’s a slippery road,” he says with a laugh. “I hope they haven’t. Let’s say it like this: we are very positive about what they promised, and we would be really happy if all the promises will be fulfilled.”

Quick facts

Born: Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 1960

Academic qualifications: Diploma in psychology from the University of Tübingen; PhD in psychology from the Technical University of Munich 

Lives with: His wife; he has two grown children

Academic hero: Literary historian Walter Jens

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.

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Reader's comments (4)

does he remember how many committees and the number of chairs and members exist(ed) at U o Southampton? how many times such memberships and chairs change ? How many "development plans" he had to write and get approved ( ... as a full professor!) ? Did he get a note from the Dean because he was (obviously) "under-performing"? Had he to get the permission (from some one) to take GS for Ph D? That was in 2000 ! ... now it's not worse , it's the worst
I am also at Southampton and I was also 'bought' for the REF. Ironically, I never could have produced at Southampton what I produced to be hired at Southampton as I do not have the academic freedom to follow my own path for as long as it takes or to apply for the funding that would serve me best. We are micromanaged to the nth degree and need layers of approval for every small thing. I cannot even get the kind of computer I want. As the commenter above notes, it's the worst. And no we do not have secretaries, so the University is paying professors to photocopy and the like.
It is true that the German university system gives professors more freedom, autonomy and resources than the UK, but a higher teaching load of 9 hours over two rather longer semesters. The main problem within the Germany university is not mentioned at all in this piece - namely the "Mittelbau" with its high number of staff on fixed term contract who have limited freedom to do their research and are dependent on the Chair to which they are attached. Unless this changes and Germany universities move towards department structures and permanent posts at lower levels, the Germany system will always lack in competitiveness and attractiveness to the UK system.
Why wont any government body look at the issue of buying people for the REF? This unethical practice has to stop. Maybe it is a matter for the competition and markets authority as ultimately this is unfair competition albeit for government funding.


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