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Habilitation

From Academic Kids

Habilitation is a term used within the university system in Germany, Austria, and some other European countries such as the German-speaking part of Switzerland, in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. It can be used to describe either a qualification, the process of earning that qualification, or - incorrectly - the thesis written as part of that process (which is called Habilitationsschrift). A Habilitation qualifies for being admitted as a professor at a university.

A Habilitation (thesis) can be either cumulative (based on previous research, be it articles or monographs) or monographical, i.e. a specific, unpublished thesis, which then has the tendency to be very long. While cumulative habilitations are predominant in some fields (e.g. in medicine), they are almost unheard of in others (e.g. in law).

The Process

In order to hold the rank of Professor within the German system, it is, or at least was, in most fields generally necessary to have attained the Habilitation. It is thus a qualification at a higher level than the degree of Promotion (the German equivalent of the Ph.D.). It is usually earned after several years of research, either "internally" (working at a university in a lower position) or "externally" (as a practitioner such as high school teacher, lawyer, etc.). With the Habilitation, the status of Privatdozent (university lecturer) is usually granted.

The Habilitation is awarded after a public lecture, to be held after the thesis has been accepted, and after which the venia legendi is bestowed, i.e. the right to teach (and to be a professor of). In some areas, such as law, the venia, and thus the Habilitation, is only given for certain sub-fields (such as Criminal Law, Civil Law, etc.); in others, for the entire field.

Those who have achieved Habilitation can denote the fact by placing the abbreviation "Dr.hab." or "Dr.habil." before their names, though this is only common for those who do not attain or who lose or relinquish the title and position of Privatdozent.

It is possible to get a professorship without Habilitation, if the search committee attests the candidate to have qualifications equalling those of a Habilitation and the higher ranking bodies (the university's senate and the Land's ministry of education) approve of that. However, while some subjects make liberal use of this (e.g. the natural sciences in order to employ candidates from countries with different systems and the arts to employ active artists), in other subjects it is rarely done.

The Debate about the Habilitation

Currently (as of 2004), the Habilitation is subject of a major political debate. The current Federal Minister for Education and Research, Edelgard Buhlman, aims to abolish the system of the Habilitation and replace it by the alternative concept of the Juniorprofessur: A researcher should first be employed for up to six years as a "junior professor" (a non-tenured position roughly equivalent to assistant professor in the United States) and so prove his suitability to hold a tenured professorship.

German academia has split opinions about this change:

Many, especially researchers in the natural sciences, as well as young researchers, have since long demanded the abandonment of the Habilitation as they felt it an unnecessary and time-consuming obstacle in a scientific career, which contributes to the brain drain of talented young researchers who feel their chances of getting a professorship at a reasonable age to be better abroad and hence move, e.g., to the USA. Also, many feel overly dependent on their superior (the professor heading the research group) as he has the power to delay the process of completing the Habilitation.

On the other hand, among senior researchers, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, the Hablitation is regarded as a valuable instrument of quality control before giving somebody a tenured position for life.

Three Länder (states) with conservative governments have sued before the German Constitutional Court against the new law replacing the Habilitation with the Juniorprofessur. The Court concurred with their argument that the Bundestag (the federal parliament) cannot pass such a law, because the German constitution explicitly states that affairs of education are the sole responsibility of the Länder and declared in July 2004 the law to be void.

This now leaves the question about the future of the Habilitation, as well as status of the first few Juniorprofessors appointed so far, unclear again.

Similarities in other countries

The degree of Docteur d'Etat formerly awarded by universities in France had a somewhat similar purpose.

Belgium had a similar degree until 1995: it was called "Aggregatie voor het Hoger Onderwijs" (roughly: Higher Education Faculty Qualification) in Dutch and "Agrégation pour l'Enseignement Supérieur" in French.

Although these awards are at a higher level than the Ph.D., they should not be equated to the higher doctorates awarded by universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and the Commonwealth: these are given in recognition of an extended research career, and would normally only come after some years at professorial status.

cs:Habilitace de:Habilitation no:Habilisasjon pl:Habilitacja

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