Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA)

On the crisis of the German university

August 3, 2010 169 Comments

Wiebke Keim, Freiburg University, and Eris J. Keim

German Original

In Federal Germany, universities in several regions have recently been in protest against the higher education policy of the Federal Republic and the Federal Lands. Protests targeted miserable conditions for university studies, university fees, chronic lack and further reductions in higher education funding as well as the so-called “Bologna-Process”. In contrast to former protest movements, these recent protests had the support of students and professors alike. They express and reflect the deep seated crises of the educational system in general and of universities in particular. A recent “education summit” in which Federal Republic and Federal Lands were supposed to agree on future financing of education had failed. The summit abandoned the aim of raising research and education expenditure – at around 8% of GNP in 2008 – to 10% in 2015.

Thus, for the second time in the last half of a century, Germany is experiencing a crisis of the university. Besides a few parallels, such as the call for more participation and decision-making power for students, there are important differences. The first “educational disaster”, as stated by Georg Picht and Ralf Dahrendorf in the 1960s, led to overall reforms of universities oriented to the ideal of the unity and freedom of research and teaching and followed the political slogan of “Education for all”. It was accompanied by broader societal and critical historical perspectives developed by the 1960s cohort of students. By contrast, the so-called Bologna-Process has nearly inverted the impulse of this last big reform. If attempts at organizing a European Higher Education Area according to the Anglo-Saxon model, with a focus on economically relevant, vocational education that has been ongoing since 1999 has not caused the current university crisis, it has certainly reinforced it. The heavy financial and economic crisis that Germany has been recently experiencing has further accentuated the university crisis. In the following, we can merely focus on a few aspects of this highly complex problematic.

1. Statistical data on the current situation

To start with, a few statistical data will provide a first impression of the current state of the German university system: According to “Conference of University Presidents: Universities in figures 2009” („Hochschulrektorenkonferenz: Hochschulen in Zahlen 2009“), there are currently 355 higher education institutions, out of which 118 are universities, 182 universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen), and 55 higher education institutions for Arts and Music; 233 of these are public and 122 non-public but publicly recognized, 82 private and 40 church-sponsored. The number of employees of higher education institutions totalled 518,613 in 2009, out of which 260,064 was academic staff. Among these were 38,020 professors, 6,157 lecturers and assistants and 130,776 other academic staff. Regarding funding, the overall income of universities totalled 32 Billion EUR in 2009; 3.9 were third party funds, out of which 1.1 Billion from the German Research Foundation (DFG) and 1.0 Billion from the private sector.

In the course of neo-liberal policies and growing globalisation of the economy, the old ideal of research and teaching being distant from government and market has been gradually dismissed. Universities oftentimes function as public or private infrastructures for knowledge and technology transfer into national and international markets. In many disciplines, vocational instead of academic teaching predominates, oriented towards the labour market and making economic usefulness and necessities as the main reference point.

The current state of the universities is so confused that the situation also sheds doubt onto the functionality of the traditional federal system. For instance, the Federal Chancellor has recently called for the “Educational Republic of Germany” while the CDU/FDP coalition in Berlin, in the debate around the reform and cutting of public funding in general, favours the “priority of education and research” (Frankfurter Rundschau, 10.6.2010). However, as the Federal Government has only limited competency in the domain of education and culture, whereas the Federal Lands have authority in this domain, the regional policies, especially in CDU-governed Lands, has much more importance. For instance, the Prime Minister of Hessen and Vice CDU-Chairman recently declared that cuts in funding for schools and universities were not taboo. The Land plans to reduce funding for universities by 30 Million Euro per annum until 2015. Sachsen’s plans to cut around 24 Million in 2010 will further deteriorate a situation where alone in 2003, 1200 posts were axed, among them 400 professorships. Another example is the highly indebted Schleswig-Holstein, where the president of Lübeck University finds out through the daily newspaper that the highly prestigious and successful medical faculty of his own university will be closed down (Frankfurter Rundschau, 10.06.2010).

2. Bologna-Reform

In 1999, 29 Ministers of Education and Research decided to create a common European university area. The core of the planned reform consists in a unified curriculum structure forBA, MA and PhD degrees. In the meantime, about 95% of European universities have introduced the new system. In Germany, the application of the reform, oriented towards the Anglo-Saxon model, represents a deviation from a 200-year-old tradition and from a curriculum structure that was well established and provided (internationally) recognized degrees. An interim evaluation presented by the European University Association (Frankfurter Rundschau, 10. and 13/14.3.2010), which is contradictory in parts, nevertheless points out clear failures of the Bologna-Process and its application in Germany.

Apparently, two of the main aims of the reform have not been achieved. First of all, mobility of students and academics was supposed to increase due to the reform. However, after 10 years, universities can still not determine with certainty whether the reform has fostered such mobility between universities in different countries. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of German students with studying experience in a foreign country only rose from 23 to 26 percent – as compared to 50% as targeted by the Federal Ministry of Education, a rather modest result, all the more so as this increase concerned primarily students of the Magister and Diploma curricula of the old system. Secondly, the other main aim of getting young people more rapidly into the labour market has not been achieved either. Employers’ acceptance and recognition of BA degrees is still an issue, as often the MA is regarded as the necessary qualification in order to be integrated into the labour market. Finally, with regard to the now highly structured university teaching, it is obvious that the Bologna-Process can not be realised without considerable increase in staff and funding.

3. Education and social origin

Recent studies of the educational system and career paths in Germany have again demonstrated that the correlation between social origin and educational chances is higher in Germany than in most other countries. Children of families with an academic background find it much easier to attend high school and university than children whose parents have low levels of education and low socio-economic status. Representatives from the working class are still strongly under-represented at universities. While out of 100 children of academics, 83 go to a higher education institution, only 23 children from non-academic family backgrounds do so, as the 18th Social Survey of the German National Association for Student Affairs (Deutsches Studentenwerk) shows. Less than half those who complete high school and who come  from poor families plan to go to university. Overall, the proportion of pupils starting a university curriculum in Germany lies under the OECD average. The educational summit in June 2010 aimed at increasing the current 35% to 40%. It remains an open question how the extra university places and additional staff will be funded and where these future graduates are supposed to find a job later on.

Having an immigrant  background is a further mark of discrimination: only 13% of children of immigrants  attend high school, as compared to 40% of all other children. This tendency is continued at university, where offspring from immigrant families face considerable obstacles although they represent an important potential for the country. As 4ING, the umbrella association of engineering and IT faculties (civil and electrical engineering, communication technology, mechanical and process engineering), states in an unpublished study (Frankfurter Rundschau, 20.05.2010), however, technical disciplines that have lower expectations in terms of language offer better chances to immigrants. While in former times, engineering represented a potential of upward social mobility for children from the working class, this is also now for young people from immigrant families.

4. Lop-sided academic support system

In Germany, out of around 2 million university students, only 2% receive a scholarship. These are mainly provided by the 12 organizations for the promotion of young talent, such as the German National Academic Foundation (Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes) or the foundations of the political parties. However, until now, it is rarely students with limited financial means who profit from these measures, but more usually children from academic and rather affluent families who are actually less in need of material support.  According to critical analysis, the currently planned national scholarship program, according to which, in the future, 8% of the best students should receive a monthly grant of 300 EUR, will further intensify the social selection process, rather than reducing it. In any case, Bundesrat has blocked this program for the moment.

As the statistics entitled “Conference of University Presidents: Universities in figures 2009”, (based on material from the Federal Statistical Office) show, gender-specific inequalities and deficits remain strong in Germany. Even though the situation of women in academia has been improving, discrimination remains important. The share of female students, around 40% at the beginning of the 1990s, has increased to 0.98 million out of a total of 2.01 million in 2009, thus nearly 48% of all students. Regarding graduates – 286,391 in total (graduating at a university with a BA, MA, Diplom, Magister, or teaching degree) out of which 145,380 are female and 141,011 male – women have become more numerous than men.

However, according to the same 2009 statistics, at PhD level (total 23,843, 10,068 female and 13,775 male) and still more importantly at the level of “Habilitation” (postdoctoral lecture qualification where there is a total of 1,881, out of which 457 are female, and 1,424 are male), women are still strongly underrepresented. In terms of professorships, the share of women has increased from about 7% at the beginning of the 1990s to around 17% in 2008. Women are thus still strongly disadvantaged when it comes to occupying well-paid and secure academic positions. An important intellectual potential thus gets lost, while , out of the comparably smaller pool of male candidates who complete university education, necessarily less qualified ones are chosen.

5. Precarious working conditions at university

Germany is facing important problems regarding working conditions of academic staff. According to higher education researcher Reinhard Kreckel, Germany is “quite an outlier” when compared to the US or other European countries. While in other countries – in the US around 50% – of academic staff is in secure professorship positions, only around 17% in Germany can count on this job security. Only fixed-term contracts are offered to mid-level faculty for duration of a maximum of 12 years after completion of a first degree. After these 12 years, a so-called “qualification phase”, persons who have not achieved a secured position with a permanent contract cannot be employed in an academic institution any longer. As one can imagine, those affected find it extremely difficult to find a job in another sector outside the university. Working conditions are thus highly precarious for the vast majority of university staff. Research positions funded by third-parties are always limited in duration. Part-time work, for a long time a particular feature of women’s working conditions, has increased for men as well – all this combined with modest salaries, bureaucratic regulation and interference, and working hours far beyond collective agreements. Thus, for many upcoming researchers, working at a university ends in a career-dead-end, unless  they manage to transfer to  other sectors or emigrate to countries where conditions are more attractive.

Current measures to improve the situation, such as the „Initiative for Excellence “ or the initiative “Freedom for Research in the Humanities” by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, based on competition, considerably improve financial conditions in certain institutions, programs or projects. However, again these measures do not guarantee long-term, sustainable structures and secure working conditions.

Another important point is the high percentage of persons without children in the mid-level faculty. In the age cohort 20-40 years, more than 70% do not have children. Among the professors, two thirds of male professors are fathers, while only one third of female professors have children. Obviously, male professors can more easily afford to have children due to secure financial situations and futures. On the other hand, educational researchers Ingrid Metz-Göckel and Inken Lind see it as a “small cultural sensation” that there are any mothers at all in academia, and even more amazing they find them to be no less successful than other academics. The protests mentioned in the beginning have not remained without a certain impact on higher education policies. Here and there, corrections of curricula are planned; an increase in salaries for teaching posts is being discussed. Whether these will prove sufficient to re-establish traditional standards and to reverse the McDonaldisation of the university, as stated by Ulrich Beck, remains open to doubt.

In any case, the Bologna-Reform with its pressures towards homogenization, rigid scheduling of courses and heteronomy, as Peter Finke states, accelerates the commodification and bureaucratisation of research and teaching. Sociologist, Wolfgang Eßbach, looking back at recent reforms, gives the following perspective: “Now many are saying ‘we did not want that’. That makes me feel optimistic”.

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