Germany's ruling conservatives and the Social Democratic opposition have finally agreed on higher education reforms to tighten university spending, give universities greater autonomy and make them more internationally competitive.
The breakthrough comes after a compromise between education minister Jurgen Ruttgers and education ministers of the federal states led by the conservative Christian Democratic Union/ Christian Social Union and the left-wing SPD. It clears the way for Dr Ruttgers (CDU) to introduce a higher education reform bill in the autumn. The SPD has promised its "constructive cooperation".
Under the reform, the length of university degrees should drop to four-and-a-half years from the average of seven years. University funding will be tied to performance in teaching and research. Universities and the more technology-oriented Fachhochschulen will be able to offer British-style master and bachelor degrees.
In a victory for the Fachhochschulen, the separate allocation of functions will end. Universities will be obliged to provide students with more advice and study guidance. Professors will be assessed on teaching competence.
One area of compromise was student selection. Places are now allocated centrally on the basis of grades students achieve in their Abitur, high school leaving certificates. The SPD has ensured that the Abitur remains the main selection criterion, although universities will be allowed to select up to 20 per cent of students for popular subjects such as medicine and law, in which the numbers are regulated. But the SPD failed to halt moves to introduce fees, which remain an option, although Dr Ruttgers personally opposes them.
But the CDU/CSU dropped its demand that students be expelled if they have not passed their intermediary exams by the end of the sixth semester. Instead, these students will have to attend mandatory university interviews to discuss their progress.
The SPD has insisted that universities provide continuing education, that they offer equal opportunities and provide child care for students with children.
In a move aimed at reducing the power of German professors, the reform will give state education ministries the right to expand the representation of students and lower-tier lecturers on university decision-making bodies.
Many specific professorial rights imposed on universities in the 1980s are to be removed.
University rectors hope the agreement will lay the groundwork for urgently needed modernisation and internationalisation of German higher education.