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Would German students be willing to care for others to pay for college?Image: AP

Opinion: Saving Germany's Universities with Public Service

Marc Young
January 16, 2004

Germany’s universities are overcrowded, underfunded and mediocre at best. Opposition to charging students tuition has been strong, but an optional public service program could provide a socially-oriented solution.


If there’s anyone who hasn’t heard yet, Germany is in the midst of a crisis. Although the country still affords most of its citizens a high standard of living, many of the societal structures and institutions that served the world’s third largest economy so well for the last 50 years are either completely outdated or in need of serious overhaul.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has begun to tackle the bloated welfare state and rigid labor market with his so-called “Agenda 2010” package. But just as parliament passed one batch of painful reforms late last year, the simmering problem of Germany’s ailing university system boiled over.

Thousands of students nationwide have taken to the streets to protest massive budget cuts at a time when university buildings continue to crumble from neglect, students are forced to crowd into oversubscribed seminars and professors are fleeing to better-funded institutions abroad. Despite the cash crunch, an obvious solution of introducing tuition fees has met stiff resistance from both students and politicians.

As if having to deal with a mediocre educational system weren’t enough for the government, a debate has also sprung up regarding the future of compulsory military service known as Wehrdienst and its civilian counterpart, Zivildienst.

As Germany takes a more active approach towards foreign policy such as its peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and in the Balkans, calls are growing for the country to move to a all-professional military. However, eliminating military service for German men would also spell an end to the thousands of social jobs done by those choosing to avoid a stint in the army. Organizations that care for the elderly or disabled are already warning many services could be cut or costs could rise without Zivildienst participants.

An elegant solution

On Thursday, Family Minister Renate Schmidt accepted a government commission’s proposal for modernizing Zivildienst. With no competency for dealing with the country’s education woes, however, the report “Impulses for the Civil Society” overlooks a potentially elegant solution to both issues.

Zivildienst in München
Germany's health care and social service sectors heavily rely on young men doing their Zivildienst.Image: AP

Why not set up a Zivildienst system where students that either couldn’t afford college tuition fees or those who wished not to pay them were instead allowed to work social jobs to finance their education?

This would both have the salutary effect of bringing more money into the beleaguered German university system via modest fees, while simultaneously encouraging thousands of young men and women to take part in worthy public service.

Solidarity is a popular word in Germany and it is tossed around frequently by many of those protesting cuts at the universities. Many of the students argue, and rightly so, that it is society’s obligation to provide a decent education. However, the society’s elites – which the university educated are – also have an obligation to take care of those less fortunate and those in need. Few currently on the barricades could argue with that.

Looking only at the city of Berlin, the numbers speak for themselves: The city presently only has around 3,000 men taking part in social service in lieu of military conscription. With a student population far in excess of 100,000, Berlin would easily find enough men and women willing to either take a year off for Zivildienst, or to work social jobs part-time during their studies.

Tuition fees unavoidable

No one in Germany wants to see the development of a higher education system like that in the United States, where a college education can cost tens of thousand of dollars each year. Therefore many, like German Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn, argue against tuition fees of any size. That may be admirable, however, it’s a position that is likely untenable.

In a recent interview with DW-TV, Bulmahn said tuition fees in America meant higher education there is only for the rich. That highly selective view, however, is flat out wrong. Though no one could argue a degree from a U.S. university comes cheap, most students receive financial aid and grants.

Then there are programs like the G.I. Bill where in exchange for a few years in the armed forces, students can earn thousands of dollars for college. A similar program for national and community service called Americorps also exists. There is no conceivable reason why Germany’s legions of pencil-wielding bureaucrats can’t come up with a comparable system for Zivildienst.

On Friday, the former premier of the German state of Lower Saxony, Sigmar Gabriel, suggested in the Tagesspiegel newspaper that there could be “education vouchers” to encourage more people to volunteer for social service. That is heading in the right direction, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

A Zivildienst for higher education would not only help halt the decline of the country’s universities, it would also strengthen the noble tradition of solidarity in German society.
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