Bad times ahead for Bad X

March 14, 1997

A YEAR or so ago I got down from the branch-line train at a spa in south Germany. Let us call it Bad X. I had a book to finish and a dire need for a weekend away from family, colleagues and the telephone. There are still branch lines in south Germany, and none-too-expensive hotels, and Bad X had both. I ate well, swam in the baths, took long walks into the local countryside, and finished a complex bit of chapter revision. Subsequently, I wondered what the devil I would have done if I had no book to finish.

Bad X is fighting for its life. Such places survived on Common Agricultural Policy subsidies to the surrounding countryside and plentiful subsidies from the German health services for convalescent patients, and the cure, which vast numbers of Germans have taken, year in, year out. Not for very much longer. One of the side-effects of recent public expenditure cuts aimed at preparing Germany for the single European currency is a whacking 25 per cent cut in subsidies for health holidays.

Only a few miles away the university is threatened by a competitive regime as drastic as anything seen in Britain. The legally-binding conditions on holders of academic chairs, that is, the right to teach and research, are now faced with cuts, of which the axing of research-assistant expenditure by 30 per cent is only a first instalment. As for German students, sharp limits are being imposed on their unending learning process.

What is the connection between these two problems? Perhaps it is the museum in Bad X, in a pretty medieval town granary, expensively restored and open on the first Sunday of every month.

The paradox of rural Germany is that the generosity of its provision for the tourist - a beautiful countryside and charming small towns, castles and abbeys, accessible through a decent rail and bus network with very cheap tickets, plentiful cycle-ways and cycle-hire facilities, moderately-priced accommodation and restaurants - coincides with an almost wilful lack of imagination in selling this bounty to German as much as foreign travellers.

The problem is not a lack of facilities, but the fact that they are not coordinated, or exploited with any cognisance of developing markets. In the country towns there are baths and open-air parkland pools and picnic-places galore, but they are directed at the locals or spa visitors. Baden-Wurttemberg in particular seems staggeringly indifferent to the cultural potential of its heritage: from Schiller growing up in Marbach and Herman Hesse in Calw and Tubingen to Chekhov dying in Badenweiler and Turgenev and Dostoevsky setting Smoke and The Gambler in Baden-Baden. The academic resources exist to manage cultural tourism, but they are rigidly oriented round school teaching and formal research, without any well-developed career services at the universities or any effective way of identifying student progress to see which courses work, and which do not, in post-university life.

German academics and curators are not worldly people, which is in many ways a good thing. But by not being assertive they let themselves be sidelined by the powerful money-makers of popular culture: the Leo Kirches and Andrew Lloyd Webbers, the purveyors of the cloying Teutonic country and western. The universities have the capacity to expand in further education, not least for the country's well-resourced pensioner mountain. There is a need for better management of the country's cultural resources so that the place simply becomes more interesting, attracts its own people from their global footlooseness, and creates jobs for the thousands of graduates that its universities release on to the dole queues.

The conventional Baden-Wurttemberg wisdom is that jobs will be created in high technology, and that university investment ought to be adjusted to suit. Which is bad news for the humanities. But the book that I was writing in Bad X was on North Sea oil. Since 1972 this has consumed more than Pounds 200 billion in investment and created about 100,000 jobs. This is the industry of the future, and it subverts such claims: a level of technical sophistication is now accessible which will slaughter high-tech jobs in their thousands. Modernisation at Daimler-Benz is likely to lead to similar conclusions. A recent documentary on working-class children from Mannheim, who could once have looked forward to a secure job for life, health resort holidays, etc, showed a large minority as insecure and unhopeful, a prey to drugs or to rightwing extremism.

Graduates are more likely to get jobs, but a surprising number of my former economics students seem to end up driving taxis.

Unless governments interpret flexibility in a humane way, win the confidence of their students that education is essential, a job-creator and not a luxury, there will be many more Mannheimers on skid row. New high-value-added activities must be developed in the environmental and social areas, or one may end up in the Scottish situation where high technology has produced North Sea oil and Silicon Glen, but Glasgow's drug problem alone costs Pounds 500 million annually, more than the country's industrial development budget. Trainspotting ran for six weeks in Tubingen. Not a good sign.

The structure of German tertiary education is ill-adapted to this challenge, with too many barriers preventing lateral cooperation between universities, technical colleges and professional institutions, and demarcation lines within these establishments are rigid. Governments are right to require reform. There is a need to mobilise underemployed students and underused facilities, university buildings with only a handful of people in them between Thursday evening and Tuesday morning. Extension of shop-opening hours is at last breaking the paralysis of the German weekend. The universities ought to follow this example, with incentives to teach seven days a week.

The deluge of information from the Internet can actually strengthen old rigidities. Against this, one advantage of inter-regional cooperation is that it becomes easier to transmit best-practice ideas. Computer technology makes it possible to carry out research, for instance in cultural tourism and local economies, by modelling and seeing how programmes would work in practice and convey the results.

What is needed is not massive funding, but injections of small amounts of cash and research time to units that have already proved that they can put it to good use, and an interdisciplinary round table at which new ideas can be discussed. It would be ironic if the inter-regional network were to flourish while the locality and the university decay.

Christopher Harvie is professor of British and Irish studies at the University of Tubingen.

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