It's become a cliché that politicians in Germany are obsessed with qualifications. The high point of this fixation came between 2011 and 2013, when a string of senior figures were accused of PhD plagiarism, forcing the resignation of the dashing defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, and the education minister herself, Annette Schavan, after investigations by German universities.
From a British perspective, it seems strange that ambitious politicians would go to such lengths to obtain a qualification that barely features in political debate (how many voters know that former business secretary Vince Cable, say, is a Dr, not a Mr?).
But in German politics, those hard-won letters matter. “Especially when the delegates [of a political party] electing a candidate don’t know the nominees well, some might see a PhD title as an indication of the nominee’s quality, as well as his potential to win votes,” Jan Ludwig, a Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician told Deutsche Welle when it investigated Germany’s PhD “obsession”. “People with such titles are often well respected simply due to the title.”
Yet in recent months, Germany’s deference to qualifications has been challenged by one man: Martin Schulz, the upbeat new SPD leader, who according to polls now has a real chance of displacing chancellor Angela Merkel in September’s elections.
Schulz has an unorthodox backstory. He is a former alcoholic who didn’t complete his secondary education, let alone go to university, but went on to become president of the European Parliament.
His lack of formal qualifications has been much debated in Germany, with the financial newspaper Handelsblatt calling him unfit for office because he did not do the Abitur, Germany’s equivalent of A-levels.
But other commentators have come to Schulz’s defence, arguing that such an attitude is undemocratic. According to a profile of Schulz in Der Spiegel, he believes he can use these attacks to his advantage by painting his critics as arrogant. Merkel’s party appears to have decided, at least for now, to refrain from attacking his lack of a high school diploma.
It is difficult to imagine a similar debate erupting in Britain about a candidate for PM who left school with “only” GCSEs. In this era of anti-elitism, such a background might be seen as an advantage. Yes, Martin Amis had a pop at the “undereducated” Jeremy Corbyn, who scraped two Es at A level. But on the whole, politicians’ formal education is less of an issue in the UK than it seems to be in Germany – at least rhetorically.
Yet the reality in the UK is rather different. Education of a certain type helps hugely if you want to get into power. As detailed in a recent feature in The Guardian, at one point in April 2015 the prime minister, leader of the opposition, shadow chancellor, chief secretary to the Treasury, a clutch of ministers and MPs, the BBC’s politics and economics editors, as well as numerous magazine editors and political commentators, all boasted not just the same alma mater, but the same degree: philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford.
Contrast this to Germany, where there is no equivalent funnel to power: every post-reunification chancellor has gone to a different university. In the same period, the UK has managed four Oxford prime ministers (Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and May). The British attitude towards politicians’ education is far more dismissive than that in Germany. Education ostensibly doesn’t matter at all – but, somehow, so many of our leaders end up having studied the same thing at the same place.