In a recent survey of international universities, Germany barely made it into the top 50. But for all the sting of the slap, this showing could fuel government plans to create a more elite educational system.
Heidelberg University ranks 47th in the world
As it stands, students in Germany are onto a pretty good thing. They are free to choose their place, subject and length of study, can effortlessly change course when disenchantment sets in, and are not obliged to break their piggy banks for the privilege -- at least not for the time being. That said, the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is currently ruling on whether or not to grant some states their wish of being able to charge a tuition fee of €500 ($640) per semester of study.
Fee or no fee, there are other issues on the center stage of higher education in Germany at the moment, not least that of the creation "top" universities. The controversial debate has been rumbling for many months now and will again attract the limelight next week when federal and regional representatives meet to discuss the viability of a plan which would essentially add a layer of elitism to Germany's higher education system.
Exceeding existing standards
"We have a lot of very good universities across the board in Germany, a high average standard, but what we lack are really top universities," Barbara Dufner, press officer for the Ministry of Education and Research told DW-WORLD.
Oxford University is number five in the world
It is an observation mirrored in the recent Times Higher Educational Supplement survey of the best 200 international universities. Although there were no real surprises at the top end of the ranking table, which was headed by Harvard and closely followed by the likes of Berkeley, MIT, Caltech, Oxford and Cambridge, the highest ranking German university was Heidelberg at place 47. And however tenuous such tables might be, such a result is a far cry from the way Germany would like to look on the international landscape.
"The latest ranking table clearly shows why it is that Germany needs top universities," Dufner said. However, with student numbers on the rise after a long period of stagnation, and education ministry figures putting Germany in third place in the world in terms of the number of foreign students it attracts, what exactly is all the fuss about?
Education is not immune to the effects of globalization, and there is a fear that unless Germany can make a stronger mark on the map, young talent will be attracted overseas to lands of greater promise and reputation.
"We need very good universities that promote research and that serve as examples. We have to be able to continue supporting and supplying good engineers, and not to have them go to the States from where they win the Nobel Prize," Dr. Angela Bittner of Berlin's Humboldt University told DW-WORLD.
Ultimately, it's all about money. If the plans are approved during the next round of talks, the federal government and the states would collectively pay €1.9 billion to finance upgrading five to ten existing universities to elite status by 2012.
"Germany has to be able to offer first class research, but we only have limited resources so researchers either spend half their time applying for funding or looking for ways to research on tight budgets," Bittner said.
Students see the pitfalls of elite universities
But the idea has met with resistance from student bodies who think the extra money should be ploughed back into universities across the board. "There's enough work to be done on getting existing universities up to scratch without trying to set up any kind of elite system," recent graduate Jürgen Winkelblech told DW-WORLD.
Innovation versus tradition
The whole concept of setting out to create top establishments, such as Harvard or Oxford, is interesting, not least because such universities feed from their centuries' old reputations and the very tradition in which they are steeped. No matter how high the budget thrown at German universities in a bid to haul them beyond their own yardsticks, their overseas competitors have several hundred years' worth of a head start.
But Bittner believes that if German universities are brave enough to say they need money to succeed, they could well start inching up the rankings tables in just a few years.
All students would have the chance to belong to the elite few
And maybe they would, but even if the plans go through, there would be no room for complacency among those deemed worthy of the extra investment. For this would be a moveable feast, providing opportunities for new universities to apply for their shot at the top.