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Human Resource Management in Higher Education


Tenure and tenure-track problematic around the world

Simona Calugareanu and Elif Ҫelik


This paper will analyse the issues of tenure and tenure-track and identify the challenges and opportunities of the phenomena. Based upon literature, it will first provide the definition of the tenure-track and give the basic characteristics of this system. Focusing on American tenure-track system, the paper will also touch upon different implementation of the system in some countries in order to provide broader knowledge about the topic, making reference also to other systems, such as the Humboldtian one. The issues of tenure will be generally mentioned throughout the paper. Besides, understanding of evaluation and rise of tenure-track system is critical; hence, it is both criticised and adopted from different parties and countries. Eventually, tenure-track system faces with some challenges and utilises some opportunities that emerged in changing nature of higher education. The key findings about those will be discussed in the paper.


What is tenure and tenure-track?

Many changes have been identified worldwide in the academic workplace in the past years. Major trends like massification, increased focus on accountability, higher competition between universities for resources, diversification in financing, less funds from the public sources and more other problems that have affected the working conditions and career paths of academics. Part-time positions started to be more popular and the long-term appointments are harder and harder to get, making the full-time permanent academic professor position increasingly rare. Even when reaching the full-time tenured position, it is no longer as secure as the traditional one when academic staff could be dismissed only in very rare cases. Now universities have the possibility to abolish it for different institutional reasons like program reorganization, financial problems, negligence of the responsibilities or violation of university policy (Altbach, 2000, p. 17). On the one hand, many academics see this insecurity and changes as a deterioration of the terms and conditions of academic employment leading to uncertain future prospects, but on the other, there are those who believe they are necessary for universities to better fulfil “the needs of a new century” (Altbach, 2000, p. 9). Despite all these different opinions, having a tenured position is considered to be very important for professors because of the intellectual freedom it can give to scholars in trying new ideas in research and teaching, following their interests in their fields with the intent of preserving the university as a place where the ideas flow freely.

Tenure-track system has been developed by the American research university and it regards the path that an academic professor has to follow in order to obtain a permanent position. This system is very demanding for junior academics but also it allows a clear view of the risks to take and the chances in further proceeding with the academic career, having three main stages: assistant, associate and full professor. Enders (2001) is describing it as a collegial-based type of organization where the lower rank academics have almost the same attributions as the full professors, their level being evaluated according to publicly recognized qualifications and expertise (Enders, 2001, p. 12). The probation period of non-tenured staff is short and the junior academics that want to follow an academic career have to pass a rigorous evaluation after the completion of their doctorate in order to receive a tenure-track position. When the tenure-track position is awarded, in the American system, a mobility period for experiencing a new environment away from the old networks and mentors is mandatory. At the end of this period, another evaluation – “six year up-or-out” – will be performed which will decide whether the candidate is eligible for a tenured position or is better to look for another career (Pechar, Park, 2012, p.9). 


Forms of tenure and tenure-track around the world

Considering the diversity of the higher education systems around the world, American tenure-track system has been embraced by many countries but not exactly in the form presented above. The patterns to reach tenure vary considerably from country to country also because of the degree of centralization o f higher education systems. In the United States the higher education system is less centralized, meaning that universities have more freedom in organizing their activities and budgets, but throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world the academic systems are more connected to their governments, higher education being mostly public, controlled and financed by the state. This means that universities are not always free in giving permanent positions, but have to respect state imposed boundaries and regulations regarding the administration of human resources within the institutions.

The track in promoting a junior academic is not the same in much of European countries as in America, because of a wide gap between junior positions and senior ones. It’s more common in Europe for a junior academic to have the security of the tenure, on a lower position, as assistant for example, but no guarantee of promotion like in America where the system provides more continuity. In Europe the promotion is more difficult because of the traditional and rigid chair system still used in many of the countries, mostly in Central and Eastern Europe where it had a major impact and it promotes usually one very powerful full professor for each department – the Humboldtian and Napoleonic variations. In this model, the untenured staff share is much wider than the one who holds a tenured position, the “chair holders” (Enders, 2001, p. 12). Reaching the position of a full professor it brings great increase in status and prestige, access to more resources and independence, but is a difficult process because of the need of a vacancy first in order to get a promotion. For example, in Germany, professors are “called” when a vacancy is opened; they cannot apply by themselves for this vacancy that is not even advertised, instead they have to wait for an invitation to be made to them that represents the application (Pechar, Park, 2012, p. 10). A large part of the junior academics have no chance to be promoted, as Pechar and Park (2012) are explaining, because of the limited professorship positions where each professor has around two assistants with habilitation (the second thesis after the doctorate) and six without it. In the North American system, this situation does not exist; the relation between these levels is more or less one to one. 

With a very diverse landscape, the share of permanent positions in Europe vary from country to country; In Portugal is the lowest, less than 40 percent, in Germany and Finland tenured staff is around 40 to 50 percent, in Austria, the Flemish part of Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain it varies from 50 to 60 percent, in United Kingdom and the French speaking community of Belgium the permanent positions represent between 60 and 70 percent and the highest proportion is in France and Ireland, around 80 percent and in Italy around 90 percent (Altbach, 2000, p. 18). The structure of the staff also varies, in each country being characterized by different positions that have specific requirements mentioned in the university regulations in order to advance from one level to the other or is decided by special comities in the case of higher positions, on the basis of research performance, the quality of teaching and also administrative skills (Huisman, Bartelse, 2001, p. 93).

In Europe, most of the systems embraced elements from both, the US tenure model and the Humboldtian one in different degrees. In Germany the system is defined by the Humboldtian model but changes according to the American tenure model in the postdoctoral junior staff positions and changes regarding their independence are being noticed. Austria has also adopted a version of form of tenure-track inspired by the US model. The staff organization and career levels distinguish between assistant, associate and full professor with permanent employment possibility if the candidate succeeds. Germanic features are preserved too, mainly in promoting the internal recruitment and not mandatory mobility period, being possible to follow the whole career path in a single institution. Also, the tenure track stops at the associate professor level and it does not lead to a full professorship like it does in the American model (Pechar, Park, 2012, p. 21). Ireland, Norway at some extent and UK that abolished the permanent tenure positions, are following a more regular career pattern similar to US tenure track model. In UK the academic ranks are term held, around five years, with periodic evaluation that is rarely leading to the loss of a position, and the reappointment procedures (Altbach, 2000, p. 16). Greece also moved more towards the tenure model by structuring the academic staff in assistant, associate and full professor positions and abolishing the traditional chair system. In Spain, the chair system is the core, but also brought some tenure model elements by introducing a department structure. Chair model was also influent in Belgium, Finland and Sweden, but by supplementing professional and assistant positions by stable teaching positions brought similarities with tenure model. In Dutch universities the staff structure is similar to US tenure model by embracing three professional ranks and also permanent positions for assistants in teaching and research areas (Enders, 2001, p. 13).

Many changes have been encountered in higher education in the last years regarding tenure and tenure track. Even though in some countries like Greece, Ireland or Italy the tenured positions have been emphasized, in others, there is a debate around the future role and the meaning of it. Due to major changes that are influencing higher education around the world like the raising of accountability requests, increased competition for resources and funding, stricter control of academic performance through different quality assurance tools or institutional leadership, the reduction of permanent positions and the introduction of full-time untenured ones with specific time limits, or the growth of part-time posts are the new trends in academic human resource management.


Challenges and opportunities of tenure-track system

Tenure-track faculty position system derived from United States is spreading out the world in mostly adjusted way. It is becoming increasingly an issue in the European higher education that it can be considered as a new model for academic position in European universities. However, there are both various challenges and opportunities that should be taken into consideration.

Due to the fact that tenure-track is an “up or out” system (Pechar, Park, 2012, p.9), insecurity of the job is one of the most important drawbacks of the system. Junior academics on tenure-track have to show high performance in different field such as teaching, research, publishing and servicing to community. It is longwinded and exhausting probationary period that might result with the termination of the engagement in the further academic career for those on tenure-track. However, in some cases, probationary faculty members spend seven years of their life on average after finishing the PhD and then they can get fired if their results are considered not proper for fulfilling the criteria of being awarded a tenured position. A survey of American faculty revealed that, in a typical year, about one out of five tenure-track academics was denied tenure and lost his or her job (National Education Association, n.d.). Although it is said that tenure-track provides higher probability to obtain a tenured position, at the end, when comparing with the Humboldtian system, the risk of job termination brings also a degree of insecurity to it. Those on tenure-track cannot continue their academic career as junior faculty member. If they cannot pass the tenure review, they become unemployed in their 40s when a new career path is really difficult to be drawn. 

Another challenge, which tenure-track system is facing with, is one of the general problems of the academic world – the diminishment in the proportion of academics pursuing a tenured position. The reason behind this shrinkage lies with both personal preferences of PhD graduates and institutional strategy of the universities. Firstly, solely a minor proportion of PhD graduates remain on the path of their academic career. Depending on the discipline, barely 40% of the post-graduate students plan an academic career due to attractive job opportunities outside of the academia. Most of them are employed either in private research institutions or in business, government or non-profit organisations (Huisman, Bartelse, 2001, p.45-77). The amount of salary is the major factor reducing attractiveness of tenure-track. Generally the average salary within the academia is lower than for economists, lawyers and engineers in many countries (Huisman, Bartelse, 2001, p. 47). Notwithstanding that higher education sector has low salary level, junior lecturers within the tenure-track receive even less than tenured positions. A person qualified for a tenured position has high probability to be successful in private sector as well, and able to get greater amount of salary in a shorter period. Therefore, the private sector becomes more and more attractive. Secondly, universities prefer less tenure-track agreements which promise academics tenure position at the end of probation period. For instance, Stankowski (2007, p10) indicated in her book that traditional university system has been changing towards one consisting of contract positions instead of tenure-track lines in United States. Due to the fact that higher education institutions have become more limited in financial and programme related issues, alternative appointment types, in which termination of the position is easier, has been increasingly emerged. Thus, the number of tenure-track agreements is decreasing while the number of full-time, non-tenure track faculty appointments is increasing. Although it brings financial and institutional flexibility to universities, it might threaten the quality of research and academic freedom and drive universities away from their core reason of existence. Therefore, personal preferences of PhD students towards job market outside of higher education institutions together with human resource strategies of universities results in a decrease the number of tenure-track agreements.

Uncertainty of determinants for obtaining tenured position that creates stress to junior faculty member is another important issue of tenure-track. Tenure obligations that have to be achieved consist of three main fields: teaching, research and publication, and service activities. They are all important activities that require certain amount of time and effort to spend on. Regarding limited time that a human-being has, being excellent in all three is challenging. Tenure-track faculty members need to make a balance between them; however,   it is usually ambiguous for junior academics which activities are most important. Therefore, they just devote themselves on these activities blindly without being sure whether they are on the right track or not (Stankowski, 2007, p 21). A survey of 4,500 tenure-track faculty members conducted by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education in 2006 revealed that there is a general discomfort with the clarity of tenure on their campuses.  They rated tenure standards, tenure criteria and tenure process. On a scale of 1 to 5 (where 5 is “very clear”), they received scores as 3.3, 3.53 and 3.63 respectively. The clarity about tenure is less for those at private institutions than those at public ones (Frogg, 2006).

Besides the difficulties tenure-track has, there are also some positive points of it. One of the important features of tenure-track is its comprehensive and reliable evaluation process for tenure position. Reaching tenure and ensuring the job security is not easy on tenure-track. Probation period for tenure is long and rigid. Since the institution has enough time to oversee a tenure-track faculty member, there is less risk of “person misrepresenting themselves- their basic attitudes, work habits, goals, etc. – in order to obtain tenure and showing their ‘true colors’ afterwards” (Finkin, 1996). Moreover, there is a bigger chance of having a tenured position when following the tenure-track, yet there is also a risk of losing one’s job if the requirements are not properly fulfilled. Therefore, it increases the motivation of junior faculty members to improve their performance to be able to retain and promote their positions. Tenure-track system both protects the institutions to employ inactive and inadequate faculty members for longer-term and leads junior faculty to be more productive and eager to perform quality academic activities. Moreover, it is the period of juniors to prove themselves as independent researchers representing an important factor in the evaluation process since this is what is expected when they become tenure.

In United States and most of the European countries, mobility is required to have a tenured position. Academics are supposed to change their home institution where they have accomplished their research training. They are expected to prove themselves in a new environment, separate from their old networks and academic mentors. However, the mobility is obligatory at different stages in academics’ career in different systems and countries. For instance, in Humboldtian system, mobility should take place in the beginning of tenured position when academics are in their 40s typically. On the other hand, in the tenure-track system, young academics have to move after they complete their PhD, in the beginning of tenure-track position which corresponds to their early 30s on average. Their academic career begins in a new environment independently from their academic mentors. However, the mobility taking place in early stage in their academic career is better for both the institution and the person since adaptation to new institution is easier (Pechar, Park, 2012, p. 10). Moreover, academics have generally more freedom and less responsibility in terms of family in their early age; therefore, tenure-track system is more convenient for academics.

Academic freedom is one of the core values that universities want to have. Although it is achieved in some countries giving the universities autonomy to choose their own research area, in some systems junior academics do not have academic freedom. Despite the fact that assistant professors have high qualifications, they still assist full professors literally that leads junior academics to depend on professors’ research topic. However, on tenure track, junior academics have to prove themselves as independent researchers who follow their own research. The freedom of choosing their topic creates more creative and diversified research environment within the university. That also boosts the motivation of academics who usually like to pursue their own curiosity.



Academic career around the world has encountered many changes driven by different social and economical factors. A decrease of permanent academic professorship positions and a higher insecurity level has been spreading out in exchange of more part-time and fixed time contract positions. Even though these trends become more popular, tenure positions remain important for the academic world, preserving the universities as places where the ideas flow freely when protecting the intellectual freedom in teaching and research activities.

A successful path in achieving tenure has been identified by the American research university. In this system, tenure-track is more collegial-based and follows three main stages, assistant, associate and full professor, providing a clear view upon the risks and chances in further proceeding with the academic career and assuring a tenured position to those who fulfil the requirements. This system has been lately embraced by many countries around the world, but in different ways. Because of particularities and the great diversity of the systems of higher education, in most of the countries can be identified elements from the American tenure-track in a unique mixture with the local governmental regulations and other traditional systems of tenure like the Humboldtian and Napoleonic ones dominating mostly in Central and Eastern Europe.

Tenure-track system had to face some challenges like the decreasing numbers of PhD graduates interested in following an academic career also due to the reduction of attractiveness that this path offers in contrast with others from the private sector. Also a degree of insecurity due to the “up-or-out” evaluation that can end the academic career of junior academics after years of engagement can affect the attractiveness of following an academic career and engaging in the tenure-track. Another important challenge in following the tenure-track is the uncertainty of the determinants for achieving the tenured position that sometimes can mislead junior academics from focusing on the right and most important activities.

Important features can also be identified in the tenure-track system like offering some protection to the institution when hiring tenure position academics by promoting juniors that have proven themselves as suitable for the job. American tenure-track system also awards freedom to junior academics in following their own research, giving them almost the same tasks as the full professors and perceiving them as in probation period rather than as assistant under the strict guidance of a senior professor.



Altbach, Philip G. (2000), The changing Academic Workplace: Comparative Perspectives, Massachusetts: Boston college Center for International Higher Education.

Enders, Jürgen, Weert, de Egbert (2003), The International Attractiveness of the Academic Workplace in Europe, Berlin: Harnak-Haus.

Enders, Jürgen (2001), Between State Control and Academic Capitalism: A Comparative Perspective on Academic Staff in Europe, Westport: Greenwood Press.

Finkin, M. W. (1996), The Case for Tenure. New York: Cornell University Press.

Frogg, P. (2006), Young Ph.D.’s say collegiality matters more than salary, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Huisman, Jeroen, Bartelse, Jeroen (2000), Academic Careers: A Comparative Perspective. Report - http://doc.utwente.nl/7812/  [Last accessed 07.01/2014]

National Education Assocation.(n.d.), The Truth About Tenure in Higher Education. Available: http://www.nea.org/home/33067.htm  [Last accessed 06.01.2014]

Pechar,Hans, Park, Elke (2012), Academic Careers during the Massification of Austrian Higher Education.Radical change or persistence of long-standing traditions, Heidelberg: Springer.

Stankowski, R. H. (2007), Contract Employment Vs. Tenure-track Appointments: Faculty at Master's Degrees Universities Speak About Their Choices. Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest Information and Learning Company. p10-21.       

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