From where I sit: Tedious politics, derelict academy

September 24, 2009

I have seen many election campaigns, but the one taking place in Germany right now is by far the most boring. It is easy to see why: 62.2 million Germans will cast their votes on September, and their new Chancellor will be the old one: Angela Merkel. That much is certain.

She will either form a centre-right coalition with the Liberals as junior partner, or, failing that, continue the "grand coalition" of her Christian Democrats with the Social Democrats. She will remain in charge in either case.

The reason why is less that the Social Democrats are trailing the Conservatives by some 13 points, but rather that their candidate, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has categorically ruled out forming a red-green Government tolerable by the far Left, let alone enter a formal coalition with the post-communists. He could not have done Chancellor Merkel a bigger favour.

Recently, the two candidates had a television debate, advertised as a "duel". Quite some duel. It was the first time that such an event took place without the other Opposition parties participating. The Chancellor (Merkel) had a nice chat with her Deputy Chancellor (Steinmeier) and neither tried to land a blow. Boring.

Would a new centre-right federal Government make much difference to higher education? Probably not. In Germany, education is Landersache, which means that the 16 states making up the Federal Republic of Germany are autonomous with regard to culture and education.

This devolution was taken to greater extremes by the present Government when it gave up its few remaining tertiary responsibilities and delegated them to the Lander and to the universities themselves.

A new Government is unlikely to reverse this trend: the Liberals have a strong tradition of anti-centralist federalism.

As universities make use of their new autonomy, Germany's educational map in the 21st century is beginning to resemble the patchwork chart of the medieval Holy Roman Empire.

A new centre-right Government may loosen some of the restrictions on genetic research, although that would not go down well with the Christian Democrats' Conservative clientele. But it will certainly continue the so-called Exzellenzinitiative - a brainchild of Chancellor Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroder: since 2007, the federal Government has handed out EUR1.9 billion (£1.7 billion) to a few top universities. This programme will continue until 2017, and a further EUR2.7 billion will be pumped into the system by then.

But this is money for research purposes only. It does not tackle the academy's most pressing problems: too few academic teachers for too many students; overcrowded lecture halls; derelict buildings; and antiquated libraries.

For decades, it has been the mantra of politicians of all stripes that Germany's only resource is the high standard of its education. But according to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Germany spends just 4.8 per cent of its gross domestic product on education (and this is falling). In Europe, only Turkey, Slovakia, Spain and Ireland spend less.

To counter the effects of the world economic crisis, the federal Government has passed an economic package that will funnel millions of euros into the reconstruction of school and university buildings. The package is designed to help the ailing construction industry. It is merely accepted that the educational sector will profit from it as well.

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