From where I sit - With all due disrespect

May 13, 2010

When the congress was over, the party began: to the sounds of Rage Against the Machine, DJane Bossa Nova raised a revolutionary fist, inciting the dancing crowd to rage against the dying light of Germany's higher education system. It all figured: in everyday life, DJane Bossa Nova is Ines Pohl, editor of the Berlin Die Tageszeitung, Germany's leading left-wing daily and the organiser of the congress that had just concluded, What Kind of University do we Want?

Held in Berlin's Haus der Kulturen on 24 April, its programme - some 25 events in five parallel sessions - was crammed, to say the least. Topics addressed included "Bachelor and Master: Utopia or disaster?", "Privileges for free: How unfair are fees?" and "Ever heard of democracy? When universities are run like businesses".

But there were also workshops on how new technologies will transform higher education ("Uni 2.0") and on the perennial theme of how Bildung, which carries overtones of "formation of personality", differs from mere education or learning ("On the usefulness of the useless"). For those unable to attend in person, the event was broadcast via the internet on five live streams covering the five locations - so it was actually easier to switch sessions while at home.

Given Die Tageszeitung's record of radical campaigns and its reputation for disrespectful headlines, the line-up of key speakers from the establishment was surprising and impressive, and included: Annette Schavan, Germany's federal minister for science and education; Margret Wintermantel, current president of the congress of university presidents of Germany; and Julian Nida-Rumelin, renowned professor of philosophy and former minister in the cabinet of Gerhard Schroder.

But not every impressive name impressed. When Ute Frevert, director of the Max Planck Institute for Educational Research, offered a vision of living and learning integrated in a scholarly community that lives on campus, many wondered where she lives. The Free University of Berlin, for example, has some 32,000 students; Munich's Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat has 46,000. In an after-conference interview, Frevert was much clearer: to her mind, 90 per cent of students didn't belong at university anyway.

Schavan admitted that the new teaching-intensive BA courses required more experienced teaching staff on permanent or medium-term contracts, but added that 10 years ago politicians had been asked to reduce the number of exactly these positions. Asked by whom? Certainly not by the universities.

Sounding like a waitress forced to deal patiently with diners who do not know what they want, Schavan revealed a basic weakness of higher education policy in Germany: the politicians in charge know next to nothing about the reality of universities in the country, relying as they do on advisers who tell them one day to reduce the number of lecturers and the next to increase it again.

The sheer amateurism of Germany's ruling class became painfully obvious earlier this year when a minister who had recently praised the Bologna Process (detailing its drive for progress, excellence and performance) was asked if there were plans to implement the Bologna format for medicine, architecture and the law. No, was his answer. Why not? "It is a matter of upholding certain standards."

Those attending the Berlin congress, I think, couldn't have agreed more. That is why they rage against the machine.

Christoph Bode is chair of modern English literature, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat, Munich.

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