Politicians and education officials have rejected a claim that a quarter of spending in universities and colleges is a wasted investment in dropouts.
Detlef Muller-Boling, head of a higher education thinktank in Gutersloh, has told North Rhine-Westphalia's government that the loss makes it crucial to reform access to higher education.
"Out of DM22. billion (Pounds 9.7 billion) annual running costs for higher education, one quarter, DM4.95 billion, is invested in the large number of dropouts," he said.
The calculations, based on 1992 figures, were worked out by the Centre for Higher Education Development, which Professor Muller-Boling heads. The centre was founded in 1994 by the Rectors' Conference and the Bertelsmann Foundation of the giant Bertelsmann Publishing Company to address the higher education crisis.
It reported that 136,000 students, or 7.5 per cent of the student total, left higher education without graduating in 1992. If this number was multiplied by the average costs per study place of DM10,700 and the average number of semesters per dropout of 6.3, the result in a national investment in dropouts is DM4.58 billion. Non-repayable federal grants totalling DM365 million had also to be taken into account.
Professor Muller-Boling said that cutting the dropout rate by just 2 per cent could save up to DM1.2 billion annually. He believes that student abilities ought to match course requirements more closely.
"Institutions ought to be given far-reaching powers in selecting students to safeguard academic standards. In order to assess their ability to study, students should be interviewed or tested. Also, vocational experience and subjects studied at school should be considered," he said.
But the leading higher education statistics agency, Hochschul-Informationssystem has contested the figures. HIS said that the 136,000 dropout students in 1992 would correspond to 53 per cent of the total number of relevant first-year students in 1988/89. However, 1992 official statistics for the old states of the federal republic only referred to 26 per cent dropouts in this group.
These 70,000 dropouts would result in costs of about DM2.5 billion a year - at most 13 per cent of annual running costs. Pointing to the results of one of its own surveys, HIS said that expenditure on dropouts should not generally be regarded as a waste of money.
Most of the dropout students when interviewed stated that their employment prospects were good. HIS also questioned the validity of taking final exams as the sole goal of the acquisition of knowledge in higher education.
Rectors' president Hans-Uwe Erichsen supported the view that it would be wrong to regard all drop-outs as failures and a cost to the economy. But he admitted that better student counselling could reduce the number. Many students were choosing the wrong course because of cutbacks in vocational education, he said.
Jurgen Ruttgers, federal education minister, also rejected the notion that money was being wasted. Almost every second dropout immediately finds a job, he said. Mr Ruttgers would like to see higher education institutions select 40 per cent of their students themselves. But Anke Brunn, North Rhine-Westphalia's higher education minister, is critical of the philosophy behind Professor Muller-Boling's proposals, and said that giving institutions more powers to select students would clash with students' right of choice.
Taking individual subjects they studied at secondary school into account would in effect diminish the value of the Abitur, the German secondary school leaving exam, as the key to higher education. Ms Brunn claimed that the debate sparked off by the CHE is diverting attention from urgently required reforms in higher education.