German mini reforms start to bite

September 3, 1999


When Germany finally passed a reform of its higher education framework law a year ago, many critics dismissed it as a "mini-reform". Rather than a blueprint for revolution in Germany's overcrowded universities - where students take an average seven years to complete degrees and 40 per cent drop out before graduation - the reform, they said, was just a weak compromise.

But one year on, the reform - which aims to make the higher education system more internationally competitive and to encourage better quality and more competition between institutions - is slowly beginning to bear fruit.

Three of the 16 Lander (states) have passed higher education laws on the basis of the federal recommendations (Bavaria, Hesse and Saxony-Anhalt), while eight more have drafted reform bills.

"The framework law should have gone considerably further in my view," said Manfred Erhardt, general secretary of the Stifterverband fur die deutsche Wissenschaft, an industry-supported higher education sponsorship body that lobbies heavily for reform. "Yet it is certainly a step in the right direction," he said.

Some of the most far-reaching ideas in the original reform bill were sacrificed to political consensus.

In order to get the support he needed from the Lander education ministers to push the reform through parliament, the then education minister, Jurgen Ruttgers, (Christian Democrat) was forced to abandon the most controversial part of the plan, the imposition of student fees - although he staved off Social Democrat (SPD) demands for a nationwide ban on fees. Some Lander have already introduced fees for "long-stay" students, but this remains the most contentious issue in German higher education politics.

The reform also failed to give universities the right to select their own students and therefore compete for the best brains. Most university places continue to be allocated by a central organisation according to capacity, not performance. The reform only allows university departments to select up to 20 per cent of their student intake on numerus clausus (restricted entry) subjects such as law and medicine. A recent survey found that most institutions cannot be bothered to use this new right under such restrictive conditions.

It also failed to tackle the thorny issue of professorial employment regulations. Professors remain Beamte (tenured state employees), and the Habilitation (postdoctoral lecturing qualification) is still the main prerequisite to a professorial appointment. However, the new federal education minister, Edelgard Bulmahn (SPD), has already started to tackle this. She has set up a commission to review professorial employment rights, which is likely to recommend an end of Beamtenstatus and methods to encourage more academic new blood and internal competition.

Nevertheless, the new framework law does promote some pro-competitive changes. It allows for public funding to be allocated according to institutions' achievement in teaching and research. It also allows for regular controls on teaching and research by external experts and students. It also gives Lander the chance to strengthen university autonomy by allowing universities to experiment with new leadership structures, such as university councils.

One of the most successful provisions of the new law was to allow institutions to offer bachelors and masters degrees alongside traditional German Diplom and Meister qualifications. More than 100 internationally oriented BA and MA courses, many in the English language, are already up and running. Universities can also enable studies carried out at foreign universities to contribute to a degree in Germany.

In terms of teaching practice, the framework law cuts regular study periods to four years for Fachhochschulen (technical colleges) and four and a half years for Diplom and Magister students. It obliges universities to offer student mentoring and forces students to take intermediary exams to gauge their progress.

Professor Erhardt believes individual state reforms could accelerate change by introducing student fees. "This would very quickly show that, far from putting students off, fees would encourage diversity. Students would only be prepared to pay good money for good offers. That would set the wheels of competition in motion."

Like many others in the pro-

reform lobby, Professor Erhardt considers the state of Baden-Wurttemberg's higher education reform bill a model state reform. It envisages introducing orientation exams for students after the second semester, credit point systems, internal and external evaluation, and temporary appointments for first-time professors.

But the plan that has caused the most controversy among academics in Baden-Wurttemberg is for each university to set up a university council - made up of 13 members, six of them external leaders of industry - that would be in charge of university financing and for guiding future development.

Experience in Baden-Wurttemberg has shown that the biggest obstacle to Lander reforms is opposition from within the universities themselves. Some are unwilling to let go of the comforting arm of the state.

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