Following the resignation of Annette Schavan, Johanna Wanka became Germany's new education minister on Thursday (14.02.2013). She has similarities not only to her predecessor, but also to Chancellor Angela Merkel.
She knows education and research. As the state of Brandenburg's former minister of science, research and culture, Wanka first appeared on the political stage in October 2000. Since then, the professor and former university dean has been involved in education policy - as minister in Brandenburg until 2009 and with the same mission in Lower Saxony since 2010. In addition, the 61-year-old is also the education coordinator for states governed by Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs.
Like Schavan and Merkel, Wanka is a vociferous proponent of funding for elite schools and universities. In Lower Saxony, she vigorously defended university tuition fees, which have otherwise almost completely been abolished nationwide. Wanka also broadly rejects state involvement in universities. And even though, from her perspective, the many recent plagiarism cases have shaken confidence in politics and research, she gives unequivocal support for the autonomy of the universities and their intention to provide more self-control in future.
Wanka shares an East German past with Merkel. Born in Rosenfeld, Saxony, and holding a doctorate in mathematics, she entered politics in September 1989, as East Germany's communist government began to collapse. At that time she was a member of the East German civil rights movement and a founding member of a group that emerged from that movement - the Neues Forum (New Forum) in Merseburg. She then joined the CDU when she became a minister in the grand coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the CDU in Brandenburg in March 2001.
Chance as a top candidate
Johanna Wanka giving a speech at the Brandenburg state parliament
In the 2004 state elections, she won a seat in the Brandenburg state parliament for the first time. The coalition of the SPD and CDU continued after the election, and Wanka kept her ministerial position.
In the 2009 parliamentary election campaign, she was the CDU's top candidate in Brandenburg; however, she had no chance against SPD premier Matthias Platzeck. The CDU remained stuck in third place behind the SPD and the Left Party, the successor to the East German communist party. The grand coalition came to an end, and Wanka took over the role of opposition leader.
Move to Lower Saxony
Despite a successful career in the Brandenburg CDU she decided to turn her back on the state in April 2010 and to return to Lower Saxony. There, in the wake of a major cabinet reshuffle, then-premier Christian Wulff made Wanka the new Minister for Science and Culture.
At the time, commentators speculated about the lack of political opportunities in a Brandenburg governed by the Left as a reason for her move to Hanover. Wanka became the first East German minister in a West German state cabinet.
Conservative and pragmatic
Even under Wulff's successor, David McAllister, Wanka kept her ministerial post until the CDU-led government was ousted in the state elections in January 2013. McAllister himself was initially discussed as a possible Schavan successor, but in Wanka, Angela Merkel now has a cabinet colleague from Lower Saxony with proven expertise in the field of education policy.
Like her predecessor, Wanka is considered conservative, pragmatic and competent. And they have something else in common: Both published their doctoral theses in 1980. "Solution to contact and control problems with potential-theoretical means" is the title, translated from German, of Wanka's dissertation in math.
In terms of Wanka's federal appointment, it will be interesting to observe how the designated minister for education and research responds to proposals by her former colleagues at the state level. 14 states have closed ranks to demand a supplement of 1.9 to 3.4 billion euros ($2.5 to 4.5 billion) as part of a higher education pact for new students. There is no allowance for this supplement in the plans of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU). When she takes office, Wanka will thus find herself on the other side of the fence.