Chancellor Schröder wants to reform the education system this year and the media is awash with talk of “elite universities.” But many are already in dire straits, a far cry from the country’s legendary academic yore.
Germany's students are facing hard times.
Even as Berlin students continue with a long-running strike to protest against drastic cuts and looming tuition fees, Germany’s ruling Social Democrats (SPD) have announced they will place education and research high on their agenda this year.
Chancellor Schröder’s (photo) party announced on Tuesday it would raise spending for innovation and research to three percent of GDP from the current 2.5 percent by 2010. In addition, the SPD wants to set up at least ten elite universities in Germany modeled along the lines of Harvard and Stanford in the U.S.
Education Minster Edelgard Buhlmann has defended the elite university concept, saying that none of Germany’s universities enjoy a reputation for greater overall excellence and the move would ensure the country kept abreast with international developments and educational requirements. The SPD is also at pains to emphasize that no new elite universities would be founded, but would rather be formed from the competition between existing educational institutions.
"We must search for ways for German universities to keep pace with internationally renowned ones abroad," SPD General Secretary Olaf Scholz said.
Critics slam elite university proposal
Both the media and critics within the SPD have seized on the elite university concept. Most point out that many German universities are already in shambles owing to a dire lack of funds, overcrowding in lecture halls and poorly equipped libraries and laboratories and that an elite university would only exacerbate the problems.
Others point out there’s no tradition in Germany of foundations and endowments such as those that fund American elite universities. The German Research Foundation (DFG) has calculated that at least a €100 million would be needed every year to bring a part of German universities up to top-notch international standards, an impossible feat considering Germany’s poorly-performing economy.
Government blamed for brain-drain
The respected conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also criticized the education ministry for driving away young scientists and graduates through a lack of incentive, a sentiment echoed by many of the country’s leading newspapers.
A woman in a laboratory peers into a microscope.
A recent report in The Scientist magazine quoted a number of Germany’s business leaders saying they feared the continuing exodus of young scientists is now threatening the future of the country’s biotechnology industry. It estimated that every seventh person with a doctorate in science leaves Germany for the U.S. and added that three of the four Germans who have won a Nobel Prize are currently working in the U.S.
Germany once an education Mecca
The country’s current academic misery is a far cry from the golden age of education reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) when Germany’s oldest universities such as Heidelberg, Tübingen, Leipzig and Freiburg enjoyed a reputation beyond the country's borders.
In 1810 Humboldt founded the university in Berlin that now bears his name. Humboldt’s reforms of higher education were largely responsible for the fact that German universities attained a leadership in science and the humanities up to World War II.
Large-scale reforms in the 1960s and 1970s have, however, brought about several changes in the German university landscape. In an attempt to modernize, the country has seen a cropping up of business and technical universities that aim to offer quick-fix international degrees such as the B.A. and MBA and attract a corresponding rush of foreign students.
But in the face of overall dwindling funds, Germany’s new internationalism has failed to catch on. A high-profile example is that of the Berlin-based European School of Management and Technology, backed by big business, which is still waiting to open its doors, after a missed deadline last September.
Brain drain being reversed?
But despite pessimistic reports of Germany’s falling education standards and the appalling lack of funds for education and research in the country, things may actually not be as bad as they are made out to be.
A recent report in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung suggested the so-called brain drain may be exaggerated. A number of top German researchers, who had returned to Germany from the U.S. in recent years, cited better security in Germany, astronomical rents in the U.S, the growing strength of the euro, a better quality of life for their kids in Germany and Washington’s increasing exclusionist policies towards researchers from so-called "rogue" countries as reasons for coming back.
"It’s like with the EU," Simon White of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics told the paper. "Researchers in Europe have learned to work together even when there are differences of opinion." White said greater competition in the U.S. often hindered cooperation. "It’s difficult there (in the U.S.) to talk about weaknesses in our own work."