Germany and England: fees contrast is part of wider social gulf

National attitudes to universities echo the Bundesliga-Premier League contrast, says John Morgan

April 29, 2016
Bayern v Chelsea, football match

They still make things, rent is affordable even in fashionable cities, higher education is tuition free and you can get into a top-flight football match for less than £12.

But all of these features of German society have their own costs and drawbacks, many would argue.

I travelled to Berlin and Munich earlier this year to research a feature on the nation’s universities, published this week. Plenty of things from the trip have stuck in my mind, including (but not limited to) the superb €2.99 weisswurst and fresh pretzel from a Munich butcher’s shop, along with the sinister marionettes and mechanical fairground attractions on the city museum’s eerily quiet top floor.  

Having paid €19 (£14.82) to travel the six hours from Berlin to Munich on a comfortable, punctual, high-speed Deutsche Bahn train, I am still weeping bitter tears over my own exorbitantly priced season ticket back home.

And I’m still weighing up the contrasts between the German and English university systems, and how they reflect broader contrasts in national cultures, societies and political systems (Scottish universities are perhaps more similar to their German counterparts, as Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, has suggested).

The praise for Germany’s scrapping of tuition charges from some fees critics in England reminded me of the way some English football writers have praised German football as an alternative model to the Premier League.

In the Bundesliga, tickets are cheap, fans can still stand to watch games, clubs are majority owned by supporters, cannot be commercially owned (barring two historical exceptions) and are seen as community assets.

Meanwhile, England’s Premier League, where none of that applies, is richer and by far the bigger global player.

Likewise, English universities – where, as in football, getting in costs you more money than in Germany – have higher levels of income (per student) and are more successful internationally (on research and student recruitment).

As with football clubs, universities are treated more as local assets in Germany, some argue. Howard Hotson, writing in Times Higher Education in 2014, said that Germany has “a cluster of ancient local universities, providing a locus of cultural identity and aspiration”, contrasting this with England’s rigid social hierarchy of universities in which age of institution is often a determining factor. He suggested that a “combination of local universities, local politics” led to the “reversal of seemingly inevitable tuition fees”.

The relative absence of hierarchy between universities in Germany comes with a much lesser degree of selectivity in admissions. LMU Munich, which at 29th in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2015-16 is Germany’s highest-placed institution, has about 50,000 students – bigger than even the largest UK universities, let alone the most selective.

The impression I got from speaking to senior figures in German higher education is that where you study will not generally affect the type of job you can get, although there are suggestions that the Excellence Initiative select research funding programme could change this.

Many of the contrasts between Germany and England in higher education – and more broadly – stem from fundamental differences in the choices of voters on higher- and lower-tax regimes, and deeper cultural attitudes to the roles of government, regulation and markets.

But with universities and more generally, it seems odd that there is not more exchange of ideas between Europe’s two biggest economies and most populous nations.

Obviously 20th-century history has been a major factor in the disconnect, but the movement to regional devolution in the UK – in which universities could have an important role – might make federally devolved Germany a closer cousin. The two nations do have a shared sense of the importance of universities, football and sausages, however different they all look in each country.

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