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Germany Falling Behind in the Technology Race

Insufficient investment in education and research threatens Germany's high-tech standing in the world as fewer opt for degrees in the sciences. The technology slump could have long-term economic ramifications.


It's getting harder to fill these jobs in Germany.

Once Germany was a leading light in terms of technology, turning out innovative products and enjoying an unrivalled reputation for manufacturing products. But according to a report by one of Germany's leading economic research institutes, the country has squandered its one-time lead and is in danger of losing out to other countries which have invested more heavily in their high-tech future.

"Germany's foundation has been solidly built, but some highly visible cracks have developed," said Harald Legler, researcher at the Lower Saxony Institute of Economic Research, which carried out the study for the German government. "Those who want to produce high-quality products need highly qualified graduates," he said.

The 200-page study shows that the edge Germany's educational system enjoyed over other countries up until the 1980s is largely gone. Training opportunities for young people in technical fields have declined some 30 to 40 percent since 1990.

The number of students completing higher educational degree programs in the natural or engineering sciences is also dropping. Only seven German students in 1,000 complete a science degree program compared with the 10 to 15 percent of students who do so in other industrialized countries. The report also found that only a third of young Germans plan to pursue a university education, compared to an average of 45 percent in other western countries.

"All of this taken together doesn't look very good for Germany's future technological productivity," said Legler. "In the foreseeable future we are going to experience a shortage of new people entering these fields." Shortsighted Outlook

The loss of high educational standards and interest, in technological fields, could have serious consequences for Germany. According to the study's authors, the support of education and research is crucial for the country's economic future. They accuse past German politicians of shortsightedness in attempting to balance budgets by cutting funding for education.

"Those who want to do a good business in five years have to spend money now on development," Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday and laid the blame for the high-tech slowdown on previous administrations. She promised to fight for higher federal investment in high-tech education. The Schröder administration has raised the budget for education and research by 25 percent since 1998.

"The future of Germany's technological productivity will be decided in our schools and universities," Bulmahn said. Another Blow for Education

The latest blow to the German education system comes as the country is already wringing its hands over another exposure of shortcomings in its once-lauded education system. The so-called PISA survey conducted by the OECD in 2000 comparing educational systems around the world revealed that German pride in its schools was misplaced. Secondary students in the "Land of Poets and Thinkers" ranked only 21st in reading literacy. In mathematics and science, they fared only slightly better, 20th place. The PISA results shocked the nation and left politicians scrambling to come up with plans for revamping a system that has drifted into mediocrity.

Although everyone agrees that something has to be done, opinions differ on what kind of reforms to put in place. The Schröder administration has promised to expand the network of all-day schools across the country, which would have see students spending more hours in the classroom. But that idea has met with opposition from some Christian Democrats and has been dragged down over funding questions.

One bright spot in the technology report was Germany's automobile industry, which the report said remains a driver of automotive innovation the world over. However, researcher Harald Legler warned against an overdependence on this traditional industry, no matter how strong it is.

"You can't stand on just one leg," he said.

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