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Bavarian Reforms Could Mark Start of U.S.-Style Education in Germany

More stratification and fees for international students are expected.

October 30, 2020
 

Advocates of a new Bavarian law that could usher in more U.S.-style stratification of universities and allow institutions to charge international students fees hope that the rest of Germany will soon follow suit.

The changes are being personally championed by Markus Söder, Bavaria’s conservative state premier and one of the frontrunners to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. He has urged rectors to embrace “more freedom” and strengthen the “innovation potential” of universities.

Wolfgang Herrmann, former president of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and one of the key players pushing for the new law, hoped that the state would become a “role model” for the rest of Germany. “If Bavaria gets a modern university law, I’m sure other states will come along,” he said.

The reforms in Bavaria, Germany’s second richest state and home to industrial titans including BMW, Siemens and Audi, would mark a clear break with Germany’s existing higher education system.

Despite efforts to create an “elite” tier of “excellent” institutions in Germany, there are still not the sharp hierarchies of prestige -- and fierce competition for places -- present in the U.S. and Britain. Institutions are overwhelmingly funded by the state, and academic freedom of teaching and research is guaranteed by the constitution.

Under the changes, universities would be free to adopt a legal form with more independence from the state and rearrange their internal organization.

They would remain state funded, but budgets would come with more targets attached. The “transfer” of knowledge to the wider economy and society would be defined as one of their key missions, alongside teaching and research.

In practice, the changes would allow universities flexibility to tempt scholars from overseas with big salaries and take on building projects themselves, said Herrmann, who led TUM for 25 years before stepping down last year. “It’s inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said of the new law.

Herrmann saw it as pushing Bavaria toward a system of stratified universities, like in the U.S. or Britain, with tougher competition for entry to top universities. “I see the beneficial effects of competition,” he said.

Under the law, Bavarian universities would also be allowed to charge non-European Union students, another major policy departure in a country where fees are almost nonexistent and politically controversial.

“This money can be taken for construction projects or financing of start-ups or other activities, which they could not do before,” explained Tobias Plessing, chairman of the board at the Association of Lecturers at Bavarian Universities of Applied Sciences.

The proposed changes, however, have provoked a backlash from some politicians and academics. Nicole Gohlke, an MP from the left-wing party Die Linke, tweeted that the reforms would “open the door” of universities to corporations.

Max-Emanuel Geis, a law professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, warned that the reform could face challenges over its potential conflict with Germany’s legal protection of research and academic teaching.

“This new bill will strengthen the university management and weaken the rights of academics, especially of those who represent subjects that aren’t suitable for [economic] added value. Take the ancient historian, the hieroglyph researcher or the dogmatics theologian: they all can be disadvantaged in terms of distribution of resources or of receiving salary allowances,” Geis said.

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