To those outside Germany, it seems inconceivable that a failed attempt to discard an archaic academic qualification could displace the tragedies of Iraq and Sudan from the news headlines. But it happened last week, after Germany's constitutional court ruled that the central government had no right to tell the country's states, or Länder, how to run their universities (see page 599).

The ruling has a wider political significance. In 1949, Germany's postwar constitution handed primary responsibility for many areas of policy to the Länder, to prevent anyone from emulating Adolf Hitler's rise to supreme power. Today, however, this decentralization has become a handicap to Germany's competitiveness.

The current débâcle surrounds attempts to replace the outmoded Habilitation, a post-PhD qualification traditionally required for progress in German academia. The mess arose from a laudable attempt by federal research and education minister Edelgard Bulmahn to modernize the German academic system by establishing ‘junior professorships’ as an alternative. But three conservative Länder objected to Bulmahn's intervention in the affairs of their universities, and took the case to the constitutional court.

What's most depressing is that the three Länder have nothing against the idea of providing independent positions for talented young scientists — they were just defending turf. And this isn't an isolated example: last month, Länder governments delayed, perhaps for ever, the introduction of a €1.9-billion (US$2.3-billion) windfall to upgrade some universities to ‘élite’ status (see Nature 430, 283; 200410.1038/430283a). Before the money is handed out, they wanted the relevant responsibilities of the central and Länder governments to be clarified by a high-level ‘federalism committee’, which was set up last autumn.

Conservative Länder politicians — led by Edmund Stoiber, prime minister of Bavaria and co-chair of the federalism committee — are now pushing to scrap a 1976 law that shares responsibility for science and higher education between the Länder and the central government. They want to devolve more power to themselves.

This would be a retrograde move. If individual Länder draw up their own policies on academic career development, moving between universities in Germany could become as complicated as going abroad. The German academic system could degenerate into a series of inward-looking institutions, none of them able to compete on the international stage. What German academia needs is more centralized strategic thinking, not less.