German students are no less competitive than their counterparts in other countries. Let’s face it: we are a success-driven society. The old saying that Germans always aim for perfection, that the best is not good enough, holds true not only for the manufacturing industry, it certainly applies to our education as well. And yet, I would argue that for most students, it does not really make a difference whether their university belongs to the top 10 per cent of an international league table or not.
There are several reasons for this, but the most obvious is quickly explained: many of us know that our universities (with perhaps a few exceptions) will never compete with Harvard, Oxford or MIT – to think otherwise is at best delusional, at worst an outright lie. While predictions are very difficult, especially if they concern the future, I dare say that it will probably take even the best German universities another hundred years to reach the level of the current elite (which by then will have moved on as well). Even costly measures by the government, such as its Excellence Initiative, have so far not been able to significantly improve the rankings of selected universities. Undoubtedly this did not go unnoticed by German students, and yet many see no reason to get wound up about all this – it is simply something they cannot change.
However, it is certainly not the case that rankings do not trouble us at all. While global performance might play a fairly minor role for many (after all, our universities are faring comparatively well internationally), it’s the national rankings that tip the scales. For someone studying law, it does make a difference whether it’s in Munich or Rostock. The same holds true for every other discipline – some universities are, from a national perspective, just better than others. With the Ivy League or the Russell Group firmly out of reach, it is these differences that students pay attention to. Ultimately, there is another reason why we do not worry too much about international rankings, a sort of secret consolation that helps us get over not being in the top spot: we know that in Germany, as long as you are not after reputation alone, you can get a pretty good education for a fraction of the cost that students at the international elite might pay.
To be honest, I would not like to pay tuition fees solely to raise the quality and reputation of German universities, as I think it unlikely that such fees would instantly have an impact on either. Top-level research and teaching develop in long cycles and are dependent on many factors – simply introducing fees would not change much, at least not overnight. And, to slip into the role of devil’s advocate: why would students be inclined to pay tuition fees if the impact – an increase in quality and reputation – kicks in only long after they have left university?
What really is at stake here, however, is a more general question about university funding. The belief that an increase in disposable capital (be it through tuition fees or subsidies) automatically results in a boost in reputation is, from my point of view, misleading. It goes without saying that proper funding is a necessity, and the lack of funding is a sore spot for many universities up and down the country. But simply throwing money at universities does not help much. Without an elaborate strategy on how to spend it, the effects of a (hypothetical) financial windfall would soon wear off.