Germany, one of the major powers in world higher education, went to the polls on Sunday. Angela Merkel’s conservative party won the election, leaving her set for a historic third term as chancellor. However, her party fell short of an absolute majority, so it looked likely to seek a coalition with the Social Democrats.
Under the energetic leadership of Horst Hippler, chairman of the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), the country's universities are gearing up to present the new government with a raft of proposals aimed at improving the standing of the nation’s academy.
One key request is that it create an extra 3,000 professorships over 10 years to benefit future students. "Such long-term investment would be an enormous boost to the student-to-supervisor ratio in tertiary education," he says. "The prospects of early career researchers would also improve significantly."
Such sentiments are warmly supported by Manfred Hampe, head of engineering and IT at the Darmstadt University of Technology, who won this year’s Ars Legendi Prize for innovative teaching methods. The accolade, awarded by the German Science Foundation and the rectors' body, recognizes outstanding contributions to university teaching.
Hampe says that research at the Ph.D. level can be encouraged only when academic researchers are given sufficient remuneration. "The current system of allotting research grants is totally inadequate for young people embarking on working life," he says. Hampe advocates a system of professional pay levels, including social security benefits, so that academic research remains attractive for young doctoral students.
The rectors' group is also lobbying hard for an amendment to the German Constitution – known as the Basic Law -- that would enable the federal government to provide long-term funding for postsecondary education. This would mean lifting the so-called "ban on cooperation," which was introduced in 2006. The change barred the federal government from getting financially or politically involved in school or higher education policy, which became, in turn, the sole responsibility of individual Länder (states). From then on, the federal government could legislate only on issues governing access to higher education and academic qualifications.
In its quest for more public funds, the rectors’ group could count on the support of all the main parties in the federal election, although each party’s motives for backing the extra spending naturally differed.
Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, remained in favor of the Exzellenzinitiative (the Excellence Initiative, introduced by the federal government in 2006), which predominantly favors research at specific selected universities. At the same time, the two parties advocated amendments to the Basic Law to free more federal funds to support universities. Their (liberal) junior coalition partner in the previous government, the Free Democratic Party, also pledged, in response to HRK questions, to "correct the mistakes made through the Federalism Reform of 2006."
True to its part-Communist, part-Socialist roots, the Left Party predictably has been critical of the promotion of elite universities under the Excellence Initiative. But nevertheless it also campaigned for a change in federal legislation to free more funds for higher education.
Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Party demanded that the federal government shoulder no less than half the financial burden of supporting higher education in future (assuming that the Basic Law is amended accordingly). However, it too promised to retain the Excellence Initiative to promote research at elite universities.
What about funding from private sources for tertiary institutions? "That accounts for only around 16 percent in Germany, compared with an OECD average of around 30 percent," says Hippler.
This, he adds, is because of "the fact that tuition fees play a very minor role in Germany."
Indeed, fees made only a brief appearance on the German academic scene after a constitutional court ruling in 2005 allowed them to be introduced. Even then, at €500 per term ($675), they were very modest. Nevertheless, they caused fierce controversy across the country, and one by one the regional governments, confronted by angry voters at state elections, abolished them or began to phase them out. Not only were the Länder then faced with a loss of revenue, but the simultaneous shortening of school study, together with an end to military conscription in July 2011, led to a surge in university applicants and a rush for places that no one had foreseen.
Hippler says that under the first part of the Higher Education Pact, which ran from 2007 to the end of 2010, "the federal government, together with the regional states, had budgeted for an additional 91,000 first-year students."
He continues: "Each side agreed to foot 50 percent of the bill to cope, but then double the number of students came and the sums didn’t add up any more."
The current second phase of the pact has budgeted for 334,000 students, and Hippler and the rectors’ conference are already setting their sights on the negotiations for Phase 3, effective from 2016 to 2020, when the number of applicants will have increased yet again.
Dieter Timmermann, president of the DSW (German National Association for Student Affairs), wants the new government to improve student loans. "The DSW is glad the number of student loan recipients increased in 2012, although this was less than in previous years, despite record numbers of students," he says.
The body would like the new government to align loan levels with the rising cost of living. It also wants more students entitled to payments and higher tax breaks for student earnings. According to federal statistics, about 671,000 students received student loans in 2012, 4.3 percent more than in 2011. Overall, there are about 2.5 million students in Germany.
The record numbers of students have provoked criticism from German business and employers’ organizations, which maintain that the country needs fewer students and more young people in vocational training.
But Johanna Wanka, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and federal education minister in the previous government, has said: "Vocational and university education are not in competition, so we shouldn’t play them off against each other. As of 2025, there will be fewer students than ever thanks to Germany’s falling birth rate. That’s why we must educate the doctors, lawyers and engineers that society will need in 10 or 15 years. Anyway, all young people should be encouraged to fulfill their potential, whether by studying or embarking on vocational training."
So while the German academy knows what it wants, the country’s politicians must make their plans clear as the election dust settles.