Hordes debase entry ticket

June 13, 1997

From Tokyo to Tallinn attempts are being made to overhaul traditional university matriculation

It was Brahms's Bolero, wasn't it? And Picasso painted the "Mona Lisa" ... or was it Durer?

These clangers by school-leavers at a grammar school in Dusseldorf did not just provide entertainment value. They were also used as evidence that the Abitur - the German school-leaving certificate that qualifies pupils for a university place - is not what it was.

This month's Abitur parties by school-leavers celebrating their high school graduation threaten to be drowned out by academics' and employers' almost ritual complaints about their students' poor grammar and general unsuitability for higher education.

Many believe that the Abitur, once only achieved by the very best pupils, has become too easy to pass since it was reformed in the 1970s. "The equation that an Abitur equals entitlement to a university place equals student competence no longer adds up," said Manfred Erhardt, general secretary of the Stifterverband fur die Deutsche Wissenschaft, an umbrella organisation of private sector research funding.

"We have a dropout rate of about 30 per cent, in some subjects up to 60 per cent. So we can no longer assume that the Abitur equips students for all subjects of university study," he added.

The government's draft reform of higher education now proposes giving universities the right to select their own students with entrance exams, interviews and evaluation of Abitur grades, in place of the centralised system that anonymously allocates places on the basis of local availability. The plan has wide support among higher education policy organisations and German employers.

"There is no way round a university entrance exam," said Professor Gerhard Becker, of the Deutsche Hochschulverband, the organisation representing university teachers, which still wants the Abitur to remain the main means of selection. But it wants standards to be raised and equalised among each of the 16 German states.

Since each state education ministry sets its own curricula, it is far easier to pass an Abitur in some states than others. One recent survey, for example, showed that 33 per cent of pupils in Hamburg passed their Abitur compared with only 16 per cent in Saxony Anhalt.

But Professor Erhardt is pessimistic about reforming the system. "Unfortunately I see no readiness in German society to tackle the issue. The universities will always complain and the grammar schools will always defend their vested interests. The pupils and parents certainly aren't interested because they fear that higher demands will necessitate greater efforts - and some will fail."

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