Germany’s federal elections appear to be heading towards a reassuringly dull conclusion. Unless the polls change dramatically, Angela Merkel looks set to win a fourth consecutive term as chancellor on 24 September.
It would be difficult to claim that universities, students and science have dominated the debate so far. Defence spending, refugees, Donald Trump, and even the alleged dangers of English-speaking hipster ghettos in Berlin seem to have received more airtime than higher education.
University leaders are tearing their hair out over the lack of debate, despite spying looming funding problems. Parties’ manifestos have been “disappointing” and “vague”, Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), has said.
Still, the policy that German higher education is probably best known for in the English-speaking world – free university tuition – could suffer at least a symbolic setback, depending on the results.
Although Ms Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian allies seem all but certain to emerge as the largest party, who will join them as junior partners in coalition government is up for grabs.
One contender is the economically liberal Free Democratic Party, whose manifesto supports the introduction of tuition fees to better finance university teaching. It does not say how high fees would be, and wants payments contingent on graduate income, rather like in the UK.
However, tuition fees are decided by states, explained Tobias Schmohl, a senior researcher at the University of Hamburg’s Centre for University Teaching and Learning, meaning the FDP “are talking about something they can’t decide on at that [federal] level”.
Still, he thinks that if the FDP were included in federal government, it could nonetheless try to push states to introduce fees, particularly for students from outside the EU. In places, this is already happening: Baden-Württemberg has already done so this academic year, under a CDU-Green coalition, while a CDU-FDP coalition also wants to follow suit in North Rhine-Westphalia with annual fees of €1,500 (£1,380).
The FDP also wants to create a nationwide system that attaches a set amount of funding to each student, regardless of where they study, equalising teaching resources from state to state. Echoing government rhetoric seen in England when creating more of a competitive market between universities, it wants the “money to follow the student”. A good showing for the party on 24 September could tip Germany’s higher education system in a more Anglo-American direction – if Ms Merkel’s CDU permits it (the party’s manifesto is very tight-lipped on these issues).
Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which is the CDU’s current junior coalition partner and hovering in the mid-twenties in polls, has explicitly pledged to keep university education free. It also wants an online “Open University”, available to everyone, not just those who have passed Germany’s Abitur university entrance exams. Indeed, one of the few things that unites most of Germany’s parties is the often rather vague promises to promote the “digitalisation” of universities and education more generally.
“Education is a key subject in the campaign but the focus is almost exclusively on early childhood and school education,” said Jörg Dräger, chief executive of the Centre for Higher Education, a thinktank. Higher education is hard to “emotionalise” in politics, he said, and “there is a shortage of renowned science politicians. The political positions of German parties hardly vary in higher education.”
The elephant in the room for German universities is that, after 2020, a big chunk of their funding stream becomes uncertain. In 2007, the state and federal governments agreed to pump billions of extra euros into universities to deal with increased student numbers, but universities now want this arrangement made permanent (it now constitutes a quarter of the budgets of some universities of applied sciences, according to the HRK). The temporary nature of the funding makes hiring permanent professors difficult; meanwhile universities estimate that they will have a €29 billion building renovation backlog by 2025.
The federal government could tie renewed funds to all kinds of conditions. The CDU manifesto gives scant detail, but says it will use a successor agreement to strengthen good teaching – a long-standing concern is that universities could do more to improve teaching – and digital innovation. The SPD has made rather more encouraging noises about strengthening universities’ basic funding and making the current, temporary funding more permanent and secure.
“Indications are that adequate, ongoing and hence reliable funding growth for universities does not appear likely even after the election,” said the HRK’s Professor Hippler in a statement at the end of August.
But for researchers in Germany’s non-university sector, such as Max Planck institutes, things look rather more rosy. According to Dr Schmohl, there is no serious political challenge to the German policy of steadily increasing funding for these research centres and the country’s national research funding council (this budget is currently set to increase 3 per cent a year until 2020).
Meanwhile, Germany’s Excellence Initiative, designed to create “elite” universities and research clusters as in the UK and US, is mentioned only by the Left party, which wants it scrapped but seems unlikely to join any governing coalition, and the FDP, which wants a similar scheme for professional education. Such an important change to German higher education “should be part of the political discussion but is not,” said Dr Dräger.