Forthcoming in PS : Political Science and Politics
Varieties of Academic Labor Markets in Europe
Alexandre Afonso, Leiden University
Abstract. This article provides a comparative overview of academic labor markets in
European countries. After outlining some structural developments, it reviews the
organization of academic labor markets in a number of countries by using a typology based
on two dimensions. First, the article differentiates between countries where access for
outsiders is constrained by formal and informal barriers to entry. Second, it differentiates
between countries where permanent jobs are available to recent PhD graduates, and those
where permanent jobs are confined to the top of the academic hierarchy, and where the bulk
of the academic workforce is on fixed-term contracts. The expansion of more casual terms
of employment (part-time and fixed-term without prospects for tenure) is emphasized as an
overarching trend across countries.
The most notable development in the structure of academic employment in the United States
over the last 40 years has arguably been the increase in contingent employment. In 2013, tenure-
track and tenured faculty taken together represented only 26.9% of all instructional staff, while
full-time non-tenure track (e.g visiting assistant professors) and part-time staff (adjuncts)
accounted for 61% (Barnshaw & Dunietz 2015: 13). Between 1975 and 2013, the growth in the
number of academics working off the tenure-track has outpaced the growth of “regular” faculty
by a ratio of nearly ten to one (AAUP 2013).
In many ways, similar developments have taken place in Europe. In spite of important
differences in access, job security and career paths across countries (Musselin 2005, 2009), a
movement of casualization has taken place, and fixed-term employment has generally grown at
a much faster pace than permanent employment. For instance, the corresponding developments
in France look similar to the United States, even if they are somewhat more contained. While
the number of Professors increased by 38% between 1992 and 2013, the number of non-
permanent instructional staff increased by 82% during the same period (Ministère de
l’Education Nationale 2015: 1). In the Netherlands, the share of fixed-term employment among
academic staff increased from 37% to 42% between 2007 and 2014, and from 22% to 32% for
entry-level positions (equivalent to Assistant Professor) (VSNU 2015). However, institutional
differences have clearly mediated the way academic employment systems have adapted to these
developments, and prospects in terms of jobs security for both local and international entrants
look fairly different across countries. In this article, I provide a comparison of regimes of
academic employment in a number of (West) European countries, drawing on a typology based
on two dimensions: the extent to which they are open to PhD graduates from other countries,
and the availability of tenure-track mechanisms of career advancement. I also provide
information on career paths and salaries while briefly reviewing individual countries.
Structural developments: Increased Demand, Budget Constraints and More PhDs
There are both demand- and supply-related factors behind the transformation of European
systems of academic employment. The first is the important expansion in access to higher
education in nearly all European countries. In the 28 countries of the European Union, the
number of students enrolled in higher education institutions increased by 13.2% between 2003
and 2012 (the corresponding figure is 26.4% in the United States). This increase was
particularly spectacular in smaller countries such as Austria (+63.8%), the Netherlands
(+50.7%), Switzerland (44.9%), but also in Germany (+31%), where tertiary education has
gained in importance compared to the traditionally strong vocational sector. Besides, it
increased by 9.1% in the United Kingdom, 8.4% in France and 6.8% in Spain. The only large
country where it stagnated was Italy (+0.7%) (Eurostat 2014).
Higher education spending as a whole and the number of teaching staff have also increased
to keep up with this expansion, and often in even greater proportions than the evolution of
student numbers. This is remarkable given that the predominance of public institutions and low
fees in Europe did not allow to pass on the increasing cost of education onto students directly.
In spite of these budget constraints, between 2005 and 2011, OECD countries were spending
10% more per student than in 2005, most of it financed by direct tax-based spending. There
were significant differences between countries in the extent to which spending kept pace with
the increase in enrollment, but in Germany, the United Kingdom and France, average spending
on tertiary education per student increased, and so has the number of academics employed. In
2011, for example, German universities were employing 41% more academics than in 2005,
with a corresponding growth of 14% in the United Kingdom. As a whole, the number of
“classroom teachers and academic staff” in tertiary education in a sample of 18 European
countries had increased by 17% between 2005 and 2012 (OECD Higher Education Statistics
1 Germany, Spain, United Kingdom, France, Poland, Italy, Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland,
Portugal, Sweden, Belgium, Hungary, Norway, Czech Republic, Finland, New Zealand, Slovak
However, these numbers not not provide much information on the type of jobs that have
been created. If data on types of employment are difficult to come by, there is ample evidence
that a significant share of them have been, similarly to the United States, non-permanent or part-
time jobs. In a context of uncertain fiscal prospects, university administrations have often
preferred to create fixed-term positions which could be scrapped more easily rather than full-
time permanent jobs which potentially commit them financially for decades.
One factor that has facilitated this has been supply-driven. Indeed, there has been an
immense increase in the number of PhD graduates, that is, in the size of the supply of labor that
qualifies for instructional positions. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of students enrolled in
PhD programs had increased by 40% in the 28 countries of the European Union, with 35% in
the social sciences, business and law. In these disciplines, the increase was massive in some
countries: 102% in Belgium, 87% in Norway, 42% in Switzerland, 20% in the United Kingdom.
Since the number of potential applicants for each faculty position has increased at a higher pace
than the number of jobs, it has provided hiring departments with a greater leeway to employ
academics along more flexible terms. In a market with often rigid wage structures, this
mismatch between supply and demand has been met through employment terms rather than
wages. In many ways, these structural factors have created the conditions for the creation of a
dual labor market (Piore 1971), where a core of academics in secure employment coexists with
an expanding periphery of workers with insecure job prospects (Afonso 2014). Against this
background common to many European countries (and to the United States in many respects),
there are however important differences in the organization of academic job markets and the
way they have dealt with this structural changes.
Varieties of Academic Labor Markets
There are two important dimensions that can be used to differentiate the organization of
European academic jobs markets. The first is the extent to which access to the academic
profession is limited by national (or local) barriers to entry for outsiders, e.g applicants with a
doctoral degree from other countries. Formally, these barriers include bureaucratic systems of
accreditation whereby applicants need to be “certified” to apply for academic jobs (in France or
Spain), supplementary qualifications beyond a PhD to access permanent positions (the
Habilitation in Germany or Austria, basically a second doctoral dissertation). Informally, they
commonly include various forms of non-competitive endogamous recruitment (common in
Southern Europe), besides language requirements. The second dimension is the extent to which
stable positions are available for doctoral graduates (similar to the tenure-track system), or
whether permanent positions are limited to professorships at the top of the academic hierarchy,
with a potentially long period of insecure employment following the PhD (common in
Germany). In other words, this corresponds to whether career progression happens through the
internal (within the same institution) or the external labor market (by applying for other jobs)
(Musselin 2005: 138). Drawing on this, it is possible to draw a four-type typology: a) open
countries with job security for entrants (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Scandinavia), b)
open countries with low security for entrants (Switzerland), c) closed countries with high
security (France, Spain, Italy) and d) closed countries with little security (Germany).
Table 1: Typology of Academic Labor Markets in Europe
(Potential) job security for entrants
Openness to international
A. United Kingdom,
C. France, Spain, Italy
Open and secure systems: UK, the Netherlands, Scandinavia
The United Kingdom is the largest and one of the most open academic job markets in
Europe. In 2013-3014, there were 194’000 academic employees in the United Kingdom, 25% of
which were foreigners (Higher Education Statistics Agency 2014). British academia is an
attractive destination for international scholars for a number of reasons. Obviously, English
makes it easier for foreign academics to access teaching and research positions. Moreover, the
British system does provide permanent entry-level positions with good levels of job security
and realistic prospects of career progression (from Lecturer (Assistant Professor) to Senior
Lecturer and Reader (Associate professor) to Professor). In 2013-2014, 64% of British
academics had permanent/open-ended contracts (Higher Education Statistics Agency 2014).
This, however, did not include PhD students. Unlike in the US, where there is a real possibility
that tenure is denied, the stabilization of employment contracts for lecturers in British
universities is more of a routine process. When hired, the prospect for a lecturer passing
probation is almost certain aside from major professional failings.
Another factor that makes the UK an open market for foreign academics is the system of
funding which ties public funding to research performance, thereby making non-competitive
appointments costlier. British universities are evaluated at regular intervals (the next one will be
in 2020) on the basis of the publications and – to a lesser extent – the policy impact of their
employees in what is currently called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Because of
its financial consequences, this provides incentives for departments to hire scholars with a
competitive publication record. It is becoming usual to hire scholars with research experience
after their PhD. This has also made the transition from the PhD to a permanent job more
difficult, as there is often a stark discrepancy between the profile of PhD graduates – British
PhD programs in political science are much less structured than their US equivalents – and the
profile required for permanent positions, creating a gap potentially filled by international
Unlike other countries where salary scales are centralized, universities have some leeway in
wage-setting, especially for senior positions, which explains the greater wages differentials
between academic ranks (Figure 1). Wages in London and more prestigious institutions tend to
be higher, even if this is largely offset by much higher costs of living. Outside this relatively
regulated and secure career path, however, many universities have sought to expand their
workforce via flexible terms of employment. Stipends for PhD positions are rare, and graduate
assistants teach on a casual basis, usually paid on an hourly basis. Many departments resort to a
growing extent on fixed-term contracts (teaching fellowships), and there have been report of the
use of so called “zero-hour” contracts with similar conditions as part-time teaching staff in the
United States (The Guardian 2013).
Figure 1 about here
Source: Berkhout et al. (2007): 4.
The Netherlands is another country where the academic job market is fairly open and where
entry level positions are characterized by reasonable levels of job security. On the one hand,
teaching in English is possible at most universities. Most tertiary institutions have MA programs
in English, and a number of institutions (Amsterdam, Leiden, Utrecht, Maastricht) have started
Liberal Arts-style BA degrees in English. Besides, the Dutch government has made a number of
commitments to attract high-skilled personnel from abroad, such as fairly generous tax rebates
for international staff. A commitment to be able to teach in Dutch (at the BA level), usually
after two years is a common requirement for entry-level appointments, however. Dutch is then a
requirement for higher ranked positions (UHD – Universitair Hoofddocent and Hoogleraar –
Professor). Career progression is usually less transparent than in the UK, and stabilization is
subject to a number of factors (e.g financial constraints). However, compared to Germany, for
instance, levels of job security for junior faculty are typically higher, and tertiary institutions
enjoy a fairly good reputation. For instance, 8 of the 12 Dutch universities were in the Times
Higher Education ranking of the best 100 universities for social sciences. Employment
conditions and salary scales are set by one national collective bargaining agreement, so there is
little leeway for universities to negotiate individual salaries (Jongbloed 2012). Funding
opportunities for research (from the NWW) make it possible to reduce teaching loads
Other countries which can be classified in the open and secure category are Scandinavian
countries, notably Denmark, Sweden and Norway (Finland being more closed). In these
countries, entry-level positions are usually permanent and enjoy a civil servant status. However,
requirements to teach in the local language usually limit the attractiveness of positions in these
countries, and local contacts seem to play a much more important role than in Great Britain and
Open and Insecure: Switzerland
Switzerland’s academic labor market shares many similarities with the German system, but it
shows much greater degrees of openness. Indeed, data from the European tertiary education
register indicates that nearly half of all academics employed in Swiss universities in 2012 did
not have Swiss citizenship. For political science, a study from the 1990s, indicated that 40% of
full professors had another nationality at birth (Armingeon 1997: 8). This proportion has
certainly increased. Internationally attractive salaries make Switzerland the only country that
can compete with US first-tier institutions in spite of their public status and rigid salary scales.2
Universities also enjoy a very good reputation in international rankings. A large percentage of
international staff, however, come from neighboring countries: primarily Germany, France and
Italy. This mainly relates to language requirements for most teaching-related activities.
However, a number of political science departments have recently been able to attract scholars
from top US institutions. In spite of this, however, entry-level positions are characterized by a
fairly low level of job security. The Swiss university system is decentralized and employment
conditions vary between Cantons. In French-speaking Switzerland, permanent positions exist
below the rank of Professor (Maître d’Enseignement et de Recherche). In German-speaking
universities, however, entry- and middle level positions are essentially on fixed-term contracts,
2 For an encompassing international comparison of academic salaries, see Altbach (2012).
similar to the German system. Tenure-track positions, however, are becoming more common.
Internal recruitment is still widespread in a number of institutions.
Closed and secure systems: France, Spain, Italy
Academic labor markets in France, Spain and Italy are characterized by high barriers to
entry for outsiders and highly regulated labor markets. The most common obstacle to
internationalization is the prevalence of endogamous recruitment based on contacts rather than
research or teaching performance, besides centralized systems of “accreditation” designed to
control the labor supply by insiders. An interesting paradox is that this system of national
quality control originally devised to limit endogamy in effect acts as a bureaucratic barrier for
outsiders (with PhDs from other countries), and does not really prevent local and endogamous
In France, for instance, potential candidates for entry-level positions (Maître de
Conférences) need to go through a process of “qualification” by a committee of French
academics under the auspices of the national council of universities. This takes place once a
year in the fall and aims at assessing whether candidates have a strong enough profile to apply
for permanent posts. A PhD in itself is not considered a sufficient guarantee. Applicants who
have not obtained qualification beforehand will not be considered for job openings. In theory,
the system was designed to ensure minimum standards and prevent purely local recruitment. In
practice, however, this rules out applicants from other countries who are not familiar with
French academic bureaucracy, and who haven’t applied for the qualification. Besides, in order
to be considered for qualification in political science, PhD theses and articles written in English
need to be accompanied by extensive summaries in French to prove the ability of applicants to
master the language of instruction (Conseil National des Universités 2014). For Professorships,
there is a national competition called Aggregation. Over a period of 6 months, applicants are
assessed, interviewed and ranked by a national jury, and depending on their ranking, can choose
from a set of available positions at universities. Again, these procedures contribute to a great
degree of closure of the market to international applicants. In spite of these centralized
procedures supposed to prevent it, endogamy is still very prevalent. Godechot and Louvet
(2008: 15) show for instance that local applicants are 18 times more likely to obtain a position
than external applicants. For political science, these odds were even higher: 71% of recruited
applicants were local, and local applicants were 32 times more likely to be hired than external
Once these (high) barriers are overcome, however, French academics are civil servants and
enjoy relatively high levels of job security in the two broad types of permanent academic posts
(Maître de Conferences and Professeur), even if salaries are relatively modest in international
comparison. Outside this protected core labor market, however, parallel tracks are developing,
both at the top and at the bottom. On the one hand, there has been a movement of dualisation of
the labor market characterized by the increase in fixed-term positions (ATER-Attaché
Temporaire d’Enseignmeent et de Recherche), especially in the early 2000s. This movement has
been scaled down in the recent period, contributing to a decrease in the total size of academic
personnel. On the other hand, some private and elite institutions such as Sciences Po in Paris
have started to hire foreign scholars on private law contracts to overcome the constraints set by
the French public service.
Spain has a relatively similar system of control of the labor supply whereby applicants to
academic positions need to be accredited by a central agency called ANECA. Holders of foreign
PhDs need to be “validated”. This is also the case for fixed-term entry-level positions. However,
the level of control of the national level over the local level is weaker, and the overwhelming
majority of hires are the result of internal or local recruitments which also make it weakly
accessible for outsiders. Reports from the Spanish Ministry of education indicate for instance
that 73% of all faculty obtained their PhD at the university where they are appointed, and 95%
of professors obtaining new positions already had a position in the same institution (El Pais
2014). This contributes to the closure of Spanish academia to the outside: data from form the
tertiary education register indicated that only 2.2% of Spanish academic staff were not Spanish.
Appointment still often work through sponsorship and log-rolling by senior academics in
appointment committees. In this context where contacts often matter more than research or
teaching quality, exile is often the only option for young internationally-oriented Spanish
academics. Substantial spending cuts in higher education in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis
have significantly added to this situation. Behind these barriers, employment is relatively secure
even if, again, salaries are relatively low by international standards. Similarly, to France,
however, a number of institutions in Barcelona and Madrid stand out through their more
international and competitive outlook.
Italy shares many commonalities Spain, with a strong prevalence of local, often non-
competitive recruitment and closure to the outside. Connections play an important role in
recruitment. For instance, Durante et al. (2011: 43) give the example of a department of
economics at a large university in Southern Italy where no less than 22 academic staff belonged
to only 4 families in 2007. Besides this, the profession is characterized by a clearly aging
workforce, and prospects for entry for younger staff are severely undermined by grim funding
prospects for university funding. Recent media coverage showed that there were only 6
professors under 40 among the 13’000 full professors in Italian universities (L’Espresso 2015).
There are three types of permanent function sin Italian universities, namely ricercatore
(equivalent to assistant professor, but which can be conserved throughout a career), associate
and full professor. The average age academics in these positions was 46, 53 and 59 respectively
in 2013, pointing also to a clear problem of renewal (ANVUR 2014: 254). The movement of
casualization observed elsewhere has also happened, as the share of non-permanent academic
staff increased from 23% in 2008 to 33% in 2013. Only 1% were foreign (ANVUR 2014: 219).
However, a new law passed in 2010 also introduced a mechanism similar to a tenure-track path
and a higher weight on performance rather than seniority alone (Rebora & Capano 2012: 184).
Closed and Insecure: Germany
Germany stands out in European academia as the system where the insider-outsider has
been the most institutionalized (Musselin 2005: 141). The German academic labor market is
clearly divided between two groups. On the one hand, full professors have civil servants’
contracts en enjoy high levels of job security. On the other hand, all other types of teaching and
research staff (Mittelbau) have fixed-term contracts and work under the patronage of professors.
Fixed-term employment tends to be the rule for most academics (as scientific staff,
Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiter) until they can obtain a professorship, usually in their 40s. In the
1990s, the average duration between the doctorate and the first professorship in political science
was nearly 13 years, with a steady increasing trend (Arendes & Buchstein 2004: 22). Unlike
Switzerland, this insecurity is not really accompanied by a great degree of openness: besides
language barriers, the importance of the Habilitation – a second, more advanced Ph.D. degree –
for access to professorships still acts as a barrier for international candidates. In the 1990s, only
5% of political science professors in German universities held the citizenship of another country
at birth (Armingeon 1997: 8). For all academic staff in all disciplines, the figure is about 12%
according to the European Tertiary Education Register. Hence, Germany differs significantly
from these countries where closure is assorted with some degree of security for entry-level
positions. Germany is also slightly more open than Spain, France or Italy where local
recruitment and bureaucratic procedures are strongly biased towards internal candidates. Indeed,
there is certainly a much greater level of mobility across universities within the country, partly
because promotion can only happen through the external labor market (internal promotions are
These patterns of dualisation may have become worse in recent years. A number of Länder
(states) and the federal government have made massive investments in time-limited research
programs resulting in larger numbers of PhD graduates, but haven’t committed the financial
resources to create the corresponding number of permanent positions. There have been,
however, a number of changes to try to temper this strong pattern of dualisation. For instance, a
number of Junior Professorships have been created for recent PhD which confer higher levels of
autonomy vis-à-vis full professors. However, many of them are also fixed-term, and debates
about the establishment of a real tenure-track system are still ongoing (Die Zeit 2015).
In this article, I have sought to outline a number of characteristics of academic labor
markets in European countries, showing how patterns of dualisation have been mediated by
different organizational features. As such, it is difficult to speak of a European labor market in
the light of the striking differences in terms of access and career progression across countries,
notably between the internationalized markets of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom and
the closed systems of France, Spain and Italy. However, these institutional difference also foster
a fairly great level of mobility across borders, mainly from closed and insecure countries to
open ones. For instance, the United Kingdom has been a destination of choice for recent
German doctoral graduates given the absence of permanent positions at the entry level in their
home country. Given the privileged position of professors in Germany, however, it may become
attractive to return there later on in their career. Mobility across countries, however, is still
strongly determined by the respective levels of openness allowed by academic systems.
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