Parties promise cash bonanza

September 25, 1998

If politicians' promises were anything to go by, Germany's higher education and research institutions could expect to be swimming in funds after next Sunday's general election, whichever party or coalition wins power.

All major political parties promise more funding for education. Germany's largest opposition party, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), has even pledged to double spending on education and research over the next five years.

But there is no evidence of euphoria among academics and students, who have heard it all before. In its 1994 coalition agreement, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's conservative-liberal government (made up of the Christian Democrats, CDU, the Christian Social Union, CSU, and Free Democrats (FDP) promised an "over-proportional" increase on education spending. In fact, the government this year earmarked DM800 million (Pounds 280 million) less for education and science than at the beginning of this legislative period.

Realists are not expecting any financial windfalls for higher education in the near future. Beneath the hype, the message in the election programmes of all the major parties is the same: they want to find ways of stretching existing funds further.

That is why virtually all of them support the main aims of the new framework law on higher education: more efficiency and competition in the overcrowded university system; shorter, more compact degree courses; and the option of internationally compatible bachelor and master degrees.

But in reform-shy Germany, no party seeking power wants to preach radical transformation. SPD education spokesman Edelgard Bulmahn supported higher education reform, adding: "But the system we have now is not all that bad." And the Greens' education spokesman, Matthias Berniger, described himself as steering a "radical centre" line.

Education minister Jurgen Ruttgers (CDU) has clothed his plans for performance-related funding next year as prizes for innovative teaching and research.

The SPD and Greens have made election capital out of opposing student fees. In the event of an SPD-Green coalition a ban on fees would be a priority, they say, despite the fact that some SPD Lander (states) have already written fees into their own education reforms. The Christian Democrats and the FDP have given the issue a wide berth.

While SPD presidential candidate Gerhard Schroder told the German-British Forum that he supported an end to tenure for professors, his education spokesmen have avoided this issue.

On paper, all parties plan to be generous in financing student maintenance. They agree on the need to reform the system. The Greens have come up with a plan under which all students would receive a monthly income regardless of their parents' income. They would be expected to pay some of it back after graduation and once they had passed a certain income threshold. The SPD and the FDP, on the other hand, want to merge child benefit and tax allowances to a basic allowance for students.

On vocational training, all parties want to strengthen the country's admired but expensive dual system of training under which apprentices learn on the job in a company and in a vocational school. State and industry share the cost, but have recently been straining under the burden. The Greens and the SPD want to use financial penalties to force employers to take on trainees, but the CDU/CSU and the FDP strictly reject this.

The parties also converge on research policy. Mr Ruttgers has been fostering support for biotechnology, gene technology, new media and renewable energy and proposes setting up innovation databases to allow industry quicker access to research results.

The SPD supports bio- and gene technology, materials research, information, environment and transport technology.

In the closing days before the election it was up to the non-party aligned Stifterverband fur die Deutsche Wissenschaft, a higher education sponsorship body sponsored by industry, to mention a few home truths. "We can no longer act as if the state can fund and regulate everything," said the organisation's president Arend Oetker. But the state must create the framework conditions to improve higher education. "The Stifterverband will be following closely what promises are kept after the election," he said.

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