Tables turn for German universities

May 16, 1997

GERMAN universities have been gripped by league table fever as the news magazine Focus publishes an exhaustive survey of the best universities in 20 different subjects over a nine-week series.

Telephones at the Munich-based magazine have been ringing constantly since the series began in mid-April, with potential students keen to find out more details of their preferred university, and angry academics keen to point out flaws in their methodology.

"We've had a huge reaction," said a spokesperson for the magazine which has seen a 50,000 rise in its circulation to 800,000 copies a week as a result of its league tables.

"Between 80 and 90 per cent of the calls have been positive and the rest have been constructive. Most complaints have come from universities which did not do very well in the rankings," she said.

The Focus league tables were constructed by a complicated points system: university faculties received grades in six categories; students' views of teaching, professors' assessment of all universities, personnel managers' views, a research publications index, staff-student ratios and share of foreign students. The results in each category were added together and weighted against its competitors to come up with league tables.

But a spokesman for Hanover University, ranked bottom of the law faculty league, told a local newspaper: "The thoroughness of the magazine leaves a lot to be desired." He claimed the staff-student ratio figures were wrong. "If we use the same basis of calculation as other universities, then our faculty has 209 lecturers, not the 47 Focus gave us," he said.

Some academics have complained that the publications index used had not counted much of their published work. Yet German academics cannot expect any respite in league table fever in the near future.

Education minister Jurgen Ruttgers has called for more efficiency and more competition among universities in the forthcoming higher education reform. The federal education ministry is one of the main sponsors of another large-scale consumer survey of higher education, to be published early next year by the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE) and the non-profit making, independent testing organisation Stiftung Warentest.

The good news for academics is that this survey, free from profit constraints, will not publish league tables. Instead, it will aim to produce facts relevant for students looking for the right course, including the range offered by courses and information about cities in which the universities are based, said Andreas Barz, leader of the project.

"We are working very hard on gaining acceptance from the universities. It is important to us that all involved accept the methods. The university's profile should be clear so students know exactly what is offered," he said.

Some academics appear to be getting used to the criticism. Dietrich Schwanitz, professor of English studies at Hamburg University, and an eloquent critic of Germany's higher education system, told local press of his faculty's poor 43rd ranking: "No wonder. The result is fair. I hadn't expected anything else."

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