Student demos plug quality

December 5, 1997

Hamburg. SOME 40,000 students marched on the government in Bonn last week in one of the biggest student demonstrations since 1968. They were protesting about deteriorating quality in German universities.

But unlike the 1960s, German society was not scandalised by the student protesters, whom even police described as disciplined and peaceful.

Politicians and professors were falling over each other to congratulate the students on their simplistic demand for more funding so that they have a seat in their lecture hall or books in their library.

Even chancellor Helmut Kohl said: "Many of the students' complaints are justified and deserve our sympathy and support."

But the praise stuck in students' throats. After all, it is the politicians and professors, many of them part of the 1968 protest generation, who have allowed the universities to become gradually more dilapidated as they failed to enact overdue reforms in favour of maintaining their own privileges.

Professors, for example, only have to teach for eight hours a week.

Mr Kohl, in power for 15 years, blamed the lack of university financing on the nation's 16 state governments, which have constitutional responsibility for education and which are mostly controlled by opposition Social Democrats.

But the state governments say they are strapped for cash and the federal government must come to the rescue.

Higher education is not the only victim of this political impotence, Germany's reform gridlock has also scuppered urgently needed tax and pension reforms. The gridlock is likely to continue because no politician wants to take hard decisions ahead of the general election late next year.

Meanwhile the universities fester. There are now 1.9 million students crammed into 970,000 places, and the number of freshers is increasing. By 2010 there will be 40 per cent more first semester students than in 1996.

Yet at some universities students outnumber professors by 600 to one while less popular subjects and universities have spare capacity.

Overcrowding leads to long study periods, averaging seven years. It is compounded by decreasing student maintenance loans, which have forced 60 per cent of west German students to take part-time jobs to survive.

Now the system is falling behind internationally. Its ailing system and internationally incompatible degrees put off foreign students, so threatening academic and economic influences abroad. More German students are going to universities abroad or in the growing private sector.

This summer, after the usual political compromises, the national and state governments finally agreed on watered-down reform of the higher education framework law.

It could go some way to limiting higher education entry, speed students' passage through the system, introduce international MA and BA degrees and give universities more autonomy.

But even if it is passed, the compromise reform still avoids key finance issues. For example, it rejects student fees - the Social Democrats would not agree to support the bill otherwise. The universities' deep-seated problems can no longer be solved by the watering-can principle of funding alone. Otherwise, the "nation of poets and philosophers", as Germany once referred to itself, will face a continued brain drain of bright students studying abroad.

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