German president Roman Herzog has delivered a harsh message to the country's universities: "You are no longer good enough or fast enough."
In a hard-hitting speech in Berlin he said "the best heads'' from Asia and other parts of the world no longer chose to study in Germany, and it "should hit us like the Sputnik shock once hit the United States''. He said it should be "a signal to gather all our forces and dare a new beginning".
President Herzog said the German education system was too bureaucratic, too time-consuming and too provincial. He called for a fundamental reform of the school and higher education system, which should go much further than current attempts at "cosmetic touching-up''.
He said there were still "great islands of provincialism'' in German universities despite the recent introduction by some of lectures in English and bachelor degrees.
"Why do German students need special permits to do their diplomas in English, the lingua franca of science? And why are foreign students hindered from studying in Germany by bureaucratic questions about the compatibility of their degrees," he asked.
"Service'' and "customer orientation'' were still foreign words in German universities, Mr Herzog said. "Even in 1997, there are still libraries which close their doors at 4.30pm.
"It is high time the universities bid farewell to the myth of supposed uniformity,'' he said, referring to the 1970s ideal that schools and universities offered students an equal education.
"There should be more competition in the higher education system, to make transparent the quality differences between institutions, and universities should be given more room to pursue their strengths and select the best students."
Mr Herzog supported the higher education reform bill going through parliament, saying it gave universities room for experimentation. He warned the regional education departments not to suffocate innovation with extra regulations.
The boom in innovative plans for elite higher education courses by state and private universities should also be given a chance, he said. "The students will vote with their feet about the quality of these models."
It is not the first time that he has spoken out in favour of education reform, but this is his strongest yet. And it struck a chord among the German public. Following the "Sputnik speech'', as one commentator called it, a private televsion company polled 18,000 Germans with the question: "Are we Germans getting dumber?'' Yes, said 89.4 per cent.