German Universities Seek to Reclaim Lost Glory

A proposed reform would promote a class of super-elite schools

7 min read

Heino Beckmann, a German finance professor, recalls his student days during the early 1960s in Berlin very fondly. "You were in charge of your own studies, with little direction," he says. "It was a wonderful time of exploration. You read whatever you wanted." When he came to the United States later, he was surprised and a little shocked at the extent to which students were guided. "I couldn't read what I wanted to read but rather what the professor wanted me to read. I must confess, I had liked being in charge of my studies."

What Beckmann remembers so nostalgically, he realizes now, was an educational world that was on the verge of being drastically changed, almost beyond recognition. Originally conceived in the early 19th century by the Prussian statesman, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt (brother of the famous explorer and natural scientist, Alexander), Germany's universities were designed to train members of an ultra-elite cadre to become teaching researchers.

Despite a professorial style that was somewhat authoritarian and pompous, the system generally was collegial, informal, and open. Anybody who had obtained a diploma from one of the selective Gymnasiums, or high schools, was entitled to study anywhere in the country; fees were minimal; and students were treated as adults from the first day. Only a small fraction of Gymnasium graduates opted for university study, generally those who felt (and were deemed) most suited for the life of the mind.

At the university level, it was assumed that the gentleman-student would be able to craft his own educational plan, and perhaps partly because of the country's legendary industriousness and discipline, the system worked. By the end of the 19th century, Humboldt's university was the model for the best research universities everywhere, having come to excel at everything from historical studies to the physical sciences and engineering. Through the 1920s, the most promising science and engineering students flocked to Germany from all over the world to sit at the feet of masters.

Those were the good old days. A democratic opening up of Germany's educational system in the 1960s, and a growing demand for higher education from an increasingly prosperous and successful middle class, led to an enormous increase in the student population. Today, Beckmann says, more than a third of German high school graduates attend university, whereas in the early 1960s the proportion was barely 4 percent.

That would have been all well and good if the university system had changed to meet new needs. But it didn't adapt much. Already in the early 1970s, young people coming from the United States to study in Germany were startled and disoriented by the remoteness of the faculty and what seemed a complete absence of campus life. What had seemed to Beckmann a nirvana of intellectual freedom felt to them like being lost [see photo, " "].

When Beckmann took leave from a liberal arts college in Minnesota a few years ago to teach at the University of Applied Sciences, in Trier, he found that when he taught using U.S. methods, the students loved it. "I didn't lecture but rather engaged them." Beckmann realized that the students wanted and needed some structure—a lesson that's now dawning on Germany's political leadership as well.

The foundations of electronics and physics were laid primarily by scientists educated in Germany. Planck and Röntgen, Helmholtz and Hertz, Heisenberg and Schrödinger, Ohm and Einstein—all came up through the ranks of the system that Humboldt inaugurated with the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1810. And at least superficially, there are still a lot of things about a German education that look enticing, starting with the fact that it remains mostly free of charge.

Yet, for anybody accustomed to thinking of German education as the essence of hard-working excellence, today's numbers are tough to face. The problems start, it seems, as soon as children enter school. According to surveys issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Paris, Germany's pupils, compared to those in other industrial countries, score below average in reading, math, and science. One reason: the average German pupil now spends 160 fewer hours per year in class than the average OECD schoolchild.

Overall, the fraction of its domestic product that Germany spends on education at all levels is smaller than the OECD average, which is5.6 percent, and far smaller than that in countries like the United States and South Korea, where it is 7.3 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively.

No wonder, then, that students no longer flock to Germany for the privilege of sitting in classes with graduates of its high-school system to study under professors trained in it. The universities themselves, once small, few in number, and uniformly excellent, now are often like gigantic U.S. state universities and vary enormously in quality. It's not so easy for the foreigner to figure out what schools are best or most suitable.

In contrast to U.S. colleges, German universities are not ranked; students are placed in universities by a central agency that sometimes works in mysterious, if not Kafkaesque, ways; private universities are almost unknown; and the public universities are virtually barred from improving themselves by charging greater than nominal tuition fees, raising foundation money, or making deals with private companies.

The German double doctorate, still generally a requirement for obtaining a tenured faculty position, instead of being the guarantee of excellence it once was, has become one of the many impediments to universities trying to attain world-class status. Scholars still toil for that second degree like graduate students well into their forties, and by the time they finally secure one of the coveted tenured positions in their fifties, they are often too tired and too far over the hill to make the most of it. Their counterparts in the United States or Great Britain might hold named professorships before they are out of their twenties, with custom-built labs at their disposal.

Two years ago, at one of Germany's most famous and prestigious universities, the faculty in Asian studies—a field that's underdeveloped in Germany compared to similar study programs found at any major U.S. university—were still debating whether Greek and Latin should be a requirement for a faculty appointment. The old guard clung to the position that it would not be enough to be fluent in Japanese or Chinese, German, and English—and at least somewhat competent in several other modern languages as well—but that classical Greek and Latin also were a sine qua non.

The situation, thankfully, is not so bad in the engineering and physical sciences, where educational programs tend to be more tightly structured and students are given concrete tasks to execute. Some of Germany's so-called Fachshochschulen (applied science universities) and polytechnics—the technical universities of Berlin and Aachen among them—offer cosmopolitan learning environments and attract grade-A students from around the world. But even at these, students and professors report, there's usually an overemphasis on theory and general grounding in principles and an underemphasis on practical work.

Especially in engineering education, continued success is essential to Germany's future. Despite global outsourcing trends, manufacturing still accounts for a quarter of Germany's domestic product, more than in any other leading industrial country.

Help is coming in the form of initiatives by both the German government and European authorities. First of all, Germans are debating plans to promote greater competition among universities by allowing them to select their own students, charge tuition, and establish their own profile—that is, seek to excel in some areas while leaving weaker fields to others.

A major impediment to the federal government's efforts, however, is the near-total control over education exercised by the state governments, which is enshrined in the country's "basic law." At present, the German Supreme Court is poised to rule on whether the general ban on charging tuition enforced by the states is constitutional [see photo, " "].

Meanwhile, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government—a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens—has pledged additional funding for encouraging research and development and, in particular, for the creation of graduate schools. To that end, it wants to inject nearly ¤2 billion (US $2.3 billion) into a program to create a band of elite universities, in the hope of stimulating research and innovation.

University professors in Germany welcome the reform debate. "The problem is not that our lecture halls are overcrowded with 600 students; the problem is that they have no room for the top 100 students," says Volker Caspari, a professor of industrial engineering and economics at the Technical University of Darmstadt. "Our curriculums are tailored for the masses. What we need are high-profile graduate schools."

It isn't just the elite student, however, who stands to benefit from the reforms that are brewing. Forty European countries, including the 25-member European Union, have agreed under the so-called Bologna Accord to adopt U.S.-style higher education reforms. They will move to an undergraduate-graduate-postgraduate system by 2010, for two primary reasons: to make it easier for students to transfer credits and degrees within Europe and abroad, and to allow those seeking training for a profession to receive a degree within three to four years rather than five or six.

Germany's association of electrical and electronic manufacturers, ZVEI e.V. (the Zentralverband Elektrotechnik und Electronikindustrie), is fully behind the new degree program, according to the association's education expert, Bernhard Diegner. The program, he says, has numerous benefits: it will be more practically oriented, particularly at the undergraduate level, and it will allow graduates to enter the workforce earlier. "Employers are seeking engineers who are highly flexible and willing to work abroad," Diegner notes. "These are typically young people."

At the same time, the system will separate those who want to acquire a basic set of skills to become engineers from those who want to delve deeper and become researchers or academics. "The current five-year diploma [roughly equivalent to a U.S. master's degree] is very heavy on theory in the first three years," says Diegner. "The result is that many students quit...have nothing in their hands, and have to start all over."

In the estimation of individuals like Diegner, the introduction of tuition fees and, of course, more government money also will help, but still more is needed. "We also need to tap industry, as U.S. universities have been doing for decades," argues Caspari. "We have absolutely no corporate donation culture in Germany."

Caspari speaks from personal experience. A few years ago, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, one of the world's largest makers of printing machines, approached his department for help in developing a program to assess the performance of the company's global procurement and production processes. "When we completed our research and provided Heidelberger executives with a solution, they asked what it would cost," Caspari recalls. "We said we can't charge them but they are free to make a small donation, say, of around ¤500 to help pay for some reference books in our library. They were up in arms over this request, which they later rejected. This is the mentality we are up against here."

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