“Germany doesn’t provide the answer for opponents of fees that people sometimes think it does,” noted Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, in last week’s Times Higher Education. “People always imply that other countries have off-the-shelf solutions”, but such thinking “always becomes a bit simplistic” (“Germany’s abolition of fees ‘cannot be model for UK’ ”, 3 September).
Hang on a second. Who said emulating the German funding model would be easy? My own contribution to this debate, referenced in the Hepi report (“U-turn of the century”, 13 February 2014), argued the opposite point: namely, that the German public’s capacity to overthrow tuition fees derived from a centuries-old, decentralised system of higher education radically different from England’s centrist one. Sadly, the May election result confirmed this prognosis.
But Hillman goes further, arguing that emulating Germany is not merely difficult but undesirable. Why? Because Germany educates a smaller proportion of its young people at university than the UK does. Here, 48 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds have a tertiary qualification. There, the figure is just 27 per cent.
These are striking statistics; but what do they mean? Hillman’s interpretation is based on two assumptions, copied uncritically from policymakers such as his former boss, David Willetts. One is that bigger is necessarily better. The other is that public finances cannot fund large student numbers. Germany’s system remains woefully small, he concludes, because it is reliant on public money.
But is either assumption sound? Where is the evidence, first of all, that German tertiary education is starved of cash? According to the latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Germany spends a higher proportion of its GDP on tertiary education (1.3 per cent) than the UK (1.2 per cent). Annual spending per student is also higher in Germany ($16,723 (£10,994)) than it is in the UK ($14,223). Moreover, the average student studies for far longer in Germany (4.19 years) than in Britain (2.74 years). This is partly because almost twice the proportion of young Germans complete an advanced degree (2.3 per cent of their age cohort) as their debt-ridden British contemporaries (1.3 per cent). Advanced study is made possible, in turn, partly because German spending on research and development (3.0 per cent of GDP) is also almost twice the UK level (1.7 per cent). All told, cumulative expenditure per student over the average period of study is almost twice as high in Germany ($70,069) as in the UK ($38,971). Are these the finances of a system desperate to expand but starved of the necessary funds?
Hence the need to question the second assumption: might the Germans have cultivated a smaller university system not because they cannot afford to go large, but because they think small is beautiful?
To understand why smaller might be better, we need to understand the different economic context in which the German university system sits. Germany’s economy is driven in large measure by the Mittelstand: small to medium-sized, export-oriented companies, each with pin-sharp focus on doing one specific thing better than any other company on the planet. Such family owned, locally embedded, high-tech firms require a steady supply of highly skilled workers creatively engaged in staying ahead of the competition. In order to guarantee this supply, local employers cooperate with educators, unions and the federal government to design more than 350 national curricula for the world’s best system of industrial apprenticeships. German apprentices divide their time between theoretical study in the classroom and hands-on experience on the job. For both components, they are well remunerated. Remuneration of apprentices plus the cost of delivering these two- to four-year courses costs between $25,000 and $80,000 per apprentice. Thanks to programmes like these, more than 80 per cent of young Germans find employment within six months of completing their education, and youth unemployment is far lower in Germany (7.8 per cent) than in the UK (20.3 per cent).
Is it any wonder that two young people have traditionally preferred this path for every one in university? Even senior educationalists – such as the rector of the University of Siegen quoted in Hepi’s report – wonder aloud whether the growth in university enrolment is a good thing. In short, demand for university places is limited in Germany because its young people enjoy something their British contemporaries can scarcely imagine: more than one route to a lifetime of rewarding, secure, esteemed employment.
So let’s agree: the German system is not an “off-the-shelf model”. Emulating it would require far more than re-engineering the English education system. It would require rebalancing our service-driven economy, correcting the exploitative attitude of management to labour, and eradicating the age-old disdain for manual work that somehow survived Britain’s brief period as the workshop of the world. But when even George Osborne yearns to rebalance the British economy on something like the German model, there is nothing “simplistic” about pointing out the admirable features of its educational component. Hepi should be helping to think through this challenge, not reinforcing the mis-guided assumptions underlying the UK’s deeply flawed social, economic and education policy.
Howard Hotson is professor of early modern intellectual history, University of Oxford.