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THE LONG GOOD-BYE TO THE GERMAN UNIVERSITY, ALMANAC 2000 vom 04.02.2002
THE LONG GOOD-BYE TO THE GERMAN UNIVERSITY, ALMANAC 2000 vom 04.02.2002

By Svetla Marinova

This diagnosis made by the German historian Franz Bauer, chronicler of the Union of German Universities, causes bewilderment in those who cherish memories of the German university as an example of European culture and education, who know that in the last century it was widely considered as an export to be copied (Japan, for instance, is among the countries which have explicitly structured its universities on the German model). What looked so good at the time, however, is nowadays shaken by internal controversies. "From the inside" the diagnosis of "good-bye to the German university" provokes not only fears, but hopes as well.
Those who are afraid that this farewell to the old principles and forms of the German educational system for higher education may take too long, point out a number of alarming facts, thus revealing the urgency which the reforms demand: German universities are losing their international prestige with growing speed. In the United States, for instance, every third doctorant is a foreigner, while in Germany it is every 15th. Regardless of the fact that German researchers continue to produce and publish their meticulous and thorough analyses, they are almost unknown outside Germany. They do receive and use international discussions, but they never initiate them. The number of patents registered by German professors is insignificant. There used to be many German Nobel Prize winners. Those with talent now prefer to go abroad, mostly to the United States. Among the reasons they state for this choice are the bureaucratic and authoritative principles of management in the German universities and the attitude of both politicians and the public towards higher education, which is regarded by them as nothing more than a source of problems.
At the very beginning of the century Max Weber pointed out the deep historical reasons explaining the strong dependence of German higher education on the state, sending a warning that in spite everything such a dependence may bring about irreversible negative results. Today his apprehensions seem fully justified. The state has retained all its powers over higher education. And more: the university has lost entirely its capacity (because of this long period of state rule) to act independently and responsibly. The results are clear: inertness, undifferentiated forms of education, limited freedom and independence for young scientists and scholars. These trends are evident at all levels of the higher educational system- from the enrollment and selection of students to their habilitation.
One of the basic topics in discussions on German higher education are the principles and rules for the admittance of students. These are two key problems:
1) The problem of students' financial contribution. According to Gerhard Kasper, President of Stanford University, California, the absence of students' taxes in Germany is one of the "absurdities of social policy". There is no ground at all for the poorer to be taxed to support the university studies of those who are better-off and therefore better positioned in society. This opinion is shared also by Hans Weiler, former Rector of the Wiadrina European University, Frankfurt-am-Oder, and professor at Stanford University. In his view to justify tax-free student education as a manifestation of social justice is a very dangerous illusion, nourished by social policy. Social policy should not ignore the normal practice of paying for a service which guarantees privileges and better chances in life for its consumer. It should condemn the practice of having society members who cannot afford higher education, but through their taxes grant it to those who can. In his view there exist other ways of levelling out opportunities, such as scholarships.
2) It is the illusion of equal opportunities that breeds the lack of meaningful criteria for evaluating students' abilities to study certain subjects. "If I had to make only one change in the German educational system", says Gerhard Kasper, "this would be in the selection and admittance of students." This does not mean that the right of students to freely choose a higher school would be denied or infringed in any way. The applicants' right to choose freely the university and the subjects of study should correspond with the right of the universities to check and rate the abilities of their applicants, regardless of the fact whether this is to be accomplished by high school diploma marks, by individual interviews or entrance examinations. This, according to the president of Stanford University, would enhance the competitive power of both sides, so that "the best students would receive the best professors and vice versa". The idea that German higher education should be easily accessible to everyone ties it to the illusion of the equality of both applicants and universities. For this very reason it requires too much effort from both professors and students, thus preventing good results.

A second range of problems concerns the insufficient differentiation and dynamics of the forms of education. The present organization of study in German universities is being secretly and tacitly adapted to the notion that all graduates aspire to a professional career as researchers. In this way the forms of study exclude covertly those students who do not intend to follow an academic career. The fact that for many students a university education is not an end in itself, but a precondition for a successful professional life and a basis for a life-long study, requires a differentiation in the process of education by splitting it into parts (modules) which should be hierarchically structured.
It is widely considered that at present a reliable instrument in such a reform is the introductiont of the Anglo-American titles of "Bachelor" and "Master", which according to predictions will soon replace the German degrees of "Diplom" and "Magister". The merits of the Anglo-American degree of "Bachelor" is that after three or four years of study it makes it possible for students (according to the Imke Henkel report in Great Britain these are 80 per cent of the students) to start their professional life with a university certificate. The Bachelor degree makes it possible to study three subjects simultaneously with strictly defined obligatory courses and exams to be passed for each year of study, which amounts to a wide-basis education open for future specializations. As from 2001 the time to acquire the Bachelor degree in all British universities will be shortened to two years of study. The new degree is called "Foundation degree" (a basic diploma) and designates a shift in the aim and meaning of academic education: the general education which stands as an end in itself is thus replaced by the practice-oriented professional training; the symbolic capital (Oxford or Cambridge as guarantees of higher professional chances) is being replaced by the cultural capital (cultivating an inclination towards study which is life-long). In Germany only a very small portion (about 12%) of students regard the Bachelor degree as a final completion of their academic education, but this is not the case in Great Britain. Students in the humanities show the greatest scepticism. The explanation is that the exceptionally high percentage of unemployment among historians, philosophers and sociologists makes them seek a higher educational degree at any cost. Many think that the new academic degrees are nothing more than the latest American fad, which will boil down to putting new tags on old goods. Many others, however - including Ursula Schaeffer, Vice President of Humboldt University, Berlin - think that the introduction of the Anglo-American educational degrees should be used as an instrument to carry out a more profound reform.
Not only the traditional German degrees of "Diplom" and "Magister" are criticized as obsolete and inadequate to current social needs, but also traditional forms of regular education. Here hopes are connected with the virtualization of education, enabling people to receive higher education at home. "Virtual", Ulf Schoenert says in his report, "is increasingly becoming a magic word". Everywhere in Germany - from Humboldt University in Berlin to the Mining Academy in Freiberg - there are "virtual schools", "virtual seminars" and even "virtual universities". Theoretically anything is possible through the Internet: to teach, to attend lectures and seminars, to hold examinations, to work with a microscope, to command robots. There are many examples of this large-scale application of new methods of education - the extramural university in Hagen, where more than 6000 students attend the courses through the Internet; the virtual city of Saarheim which is visited along the information highway by 100 000 law students every week - but nevertheless German experts are much more cautious in their praise than their American colleagues, who envisage that "in ten years' time no students will sit in auditoria". "One should not expect that the Internet will bring about a rise in spiritual sublimity" - warns Bernard Coring, lecturer at the Technical University in Kemnitz. It sounds quite improbable that "the virtual university" will replace the traditional one. Here we are speaking about a useful aid and a clever combination of both forms of education.
Even less probable is that this will take place in the humanitarian subjects.
 

There, for example in the subject of philosophy, we are witnessing a return to ancient forms of practice. Walter Schmidt tells us about a young philosophy graduate and his unusual methods - philosophic conversations with ordinary people on problems which they are incapable of solving on the basis of their own experience - aimed at reviving philosophy's lost link with real life, which the philosophers of Antiquity like Aristotle managed to achieve in their public debates. "Philosophers only reflect on what was thought thousands of years ago, but fail to relate it to our contemporary world" - Markus Melchers tried to justify his strategy, which - clearly - is also a strategy for survival in the conditions of an increasingly narrowing market for the goods of philosophy. "Whoever does not want to work as a taxi driver or cheap lecturer should be creative" - says Melchers. Nor is it a secret that such practices, which vulgarize philosophy, function as strategies in philosophy's efforts to overcome competition with the other humanitarian subjects, in particular psychology. Thus, for instance, the philosopher Gerd Achenbach (who invented the concept of a "philosophy study") declares openly that psychology is oriented towards the psyche of the individual and therefore produces egoists. The majority of people's problems stem not from psychological defects, but from false hopes, expectations and views. That is why psychology should be not the first but the last resort. Irrespective of the fact that such unusual concepts and practices are met not only with criticism, but with approval as well, it is still difficult for them to penetrate academic institutions and their curricula. This is a proof of the inertness of the German higher educational system.
But it seems that the focus of all negative trends in the development of the German educational system lies in the rules and procedures for habilitation. The problem of abolishing habilitation as a precondition for giving young scientists and scholars a permanent university job is being raised with growing urgency, causing controversial feelings. Martin Spiewak decribes the rules and procedures of this specifically German ritual of academic ordaining as a feudal system of relations between the aspiring and recognized academic cadres, and the university itself - as "a stepmother, who forces her children into slavery". If habilitation used to have a positive effect on the development of the German university as an instrument of blocking the inflow of mediocre doctors seeking teaching posts, nowadays it is much more a factor of blocking the free and creative development of young academics. When there were few applicants for different departments and when more universities used to be exist, the traditional habilitation model was definitely successful. The habilitation age lasted about thirty years. In event of failure, applicants still had the chance to find professional realization elsewhere. Nowadays, however, applicants are ten years older and the meagre budget constantly requires staff cuts. At the same time, by means of scholarships and supporting programmes, the mass university is manufacturing academic cadres in enormous quantity. About 60 000 students are currently working on their theses in Germany. Most of them are not motivated by pure intellectual curiosity, but by the fear that after graduation they may remain jobless. Professors themselves are the most interested in getting the doctor's title inflated, because this title is the only instrument for the reproduction of the so-called "academic proletariat" - all the private readers, assistants and researchers without whom the whole educational machine, called "university" would cease to exist and without whom their own reproduction as the "academic aristocracy" would be impossible. Almost all critics of the present habilitation model in Germany are unanimous that there is no other industrialized country where the chasm between the professors and the young academic cadres is so deep. In no other academic structure do professors hold such unlimited powers and privileges as in the German one. The professors there are like state officials, who are not subject to dismissal, they retain their salaries irrespective of the quality of their teaching and research work, they are not obliged to comply with any recommendation from "above", or with opposition from "below". As a rule, uncertain posts are taken by young, non-habilitated scientists and scholars. Most of them rise to a permanent job and permanent income at the age of forty at the earliest, when they have taken their last examination in maturity, namely the habilitation (when their best productive years are already behind them). Before that they usually live on scholarships or take ? or 1/3 jobs as assistants, thus being directly subordinated to a professor.
All attempts at terminating this reproduction of academic hierarchy imposed by regular professors, by means of programmes accelerating the appointment of non-habilitated young scientists to permanent posts or vice versa - by means of programmes undermining the security of the recognized academic cadres - are met with the stiff opposition of regular professors who will never give up their privileged positions and whose interests lie in further reinforcing the wall between themselves and their disciples.
Habilitation in Germany cannot easily be abolished not only because, as Hans Weiler says: "knowledge, too, is a field of power ambitions". This is true all over the world because, as Reinhard Kreckel (professor in sociology and rector of the Halle-Wittenberg University) warns us, it is part of those unwritten rules and self-evident facts on which both the existence and the achievements of the German universities depend. Although it can be changed. Kreckel proposes the introduction of a so-called habilitation professorship for young scientists and scholars (between 30 and 32 years of age), whose doctor's thesis is above the average level. The habilitation professor has the same rights and duties as a regular professor. The only difference is that the habilitation professorship has a limited term of five years and after the fourth (at the latest) a specialized council must take a decision (on the grounds of the achievements in the various academic activities and the reviews of outside experts) whether the respective young man or woman will be appointed to a permanent post, and thus made equal to habilitated professors in every respect. If not, then the applicant is dismissed after the fifth year. He/she will still be young enough to get re-oriented or to apply for a traditional habilitation scholarship. In the opinion of Kreckel this habilitation pattern can solve most existing deficiencies: it shortens the period of young scholars' dependence (though this will be true only for the best and for well-qualified doctors); lowers the age the teaching staff; both the research and the teaching abilities of the respective person are duly evaluated; the procedure for appointing professors becomes more dynamic, and the activity of young academics is further stimulated. Whether this attempt at a change in the existing academic order will share the fate of many previous failures is difficult to predict. As Kreckel himself is trying to convince us, only one thing is clear: in the event of failure at least there won't be any great damage done.
A more general reason for the failure of almost all attempts at changing the academic order fail, is the stiff resistance of professors and the lack of will on the part of German politicians to give up their control over higher schools. Hans Weiler points out that the promises of reform made by the politicians are often a mere strategy in the political struggle or just "an attempt to regain lost legitimation on the road of reformist rhetoric". The very notion of "reform" brings symbolic dividends in the political competition. What is being offered as a "reform" however, is nothing more than a restriction of the damage caused by the lack of proper financing of learning, actually transferring the rule of savings into the higher schools, labelling this policy as an act of granting "greater autonomy" to the universities.
The latest hope for reforming the German educational system and achieving true autonomy of higher schools is called "The Board of Managers". Its task, as explained by Sabine Etzold, is to help those German universities which are under state trusteeship to become autonomous enterprises for academic services. Comprising of representatives of politics, academia and business the Board of Managers should take over most of the state prerogatives, such as: defining the strategy of the higher school, appointing the professors and electing the governing body. The board should defend the interests of the higher school not only "outwardly", but "inwardly", which is, from the interests of separate faculties, schools, subjects and individual professors. "Will the new instrument of control succeed?", "What is better for the universities: a strong or a weak board?", "Will these boards manage to put higher schools on their feet again?" The answer to these question presupposes experience, which the boards still lack. There is no clear idea of what exactly the new concept of the board will bring about. Dangers may arise both from a strong and competent board as well as from a weak and incompetent board. The experience has shown so far that the board functions well where the sponsors of the university are on the board of managers, i.e. in private universities.
This good-bye to the German university looks like a good-bye to the state university. If this is so, then the German educational system is again lagging behind its "example" - the United States of America, where in recent years a new form of state university has been replacing the traditionally dominant private university.


 
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