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Changing German Universities: The Profit Motive, Democracy, and Administrative Power

October 20, 2006

In the general history of higher education, the German university system of the middle-to-late nineteenth century served as the pre-eminent example for academic rigor and research. The German model provided American institutions with a blueprint for constructing graduate research programs. Since then, American universities gradually modified that system with, for instance, a more democratic admissions process.

Today, however, the American higher education system is providing German universities with a blueprint for financial success: the corporate university. Moreover, German universities today are moving from a more democratic process for distributing state monetary support to one that favors institutional excellence: frontrunners will get more money. There is an excellent article on Germany’s transition in today’s New York Times.

Part of the article focused on the University of Karlsruhe, which was selected to be an “elite” university within the German system, and hence eligible for more funding.

Here are some highlights from the NYT piece:

– “With German universities — once the envy of the academic world — in decline for decades, Mr. Hommelhoff [rector of the University of Heidelberg] said most Germans accepted that radical measures were needed to propel them back into competition with their rivals in Britain, Switzerland and especially the United States.”
– “To start with, Germans are abandoning a notion that all universities are basically equal — an ideal that dates from the 1970’s when university admissions were opened up and that has served to mask vast disparities in quality among the country’s 102 universities.”
– “Germans are abandoning a notion that all universities are basically equal — an ideal that dates from the 1970’s when university admissions were opened up and that has served to mask vast disparities in quality among the country’s 102 universities”
– “Designating elite universities reveals some awkward truths about German higher education that were known but rarely acknowledged. One is that northern Germany lags far behind the south in the quality of its institutions. Another is that the most hallowed names in German academia — Humboldt, Tübingen and the like — are not actually the best schools.”
– “Turning Karlsruhe into a German Massachusetts Institute of Technology will take decades, given the vastly higher levels of private and public research financing M.I.T. receives. The money flowing to Karlsruhe is ‘peanuts compared to Harvard, Stanford or Berkeley,’ said Mr. Hippler [a professor of physical chemistry and the rector of the university]. Still, he added, every bit helps. And more important than the money is the status, which he said would help Karlsruhe attract better students, better professors and financing from other sources.
– “‘Branding is very important,’ said Mr. Hippler, whose entrepreneurial style is a sharp contrast to that of the courtly Mr. Hommelhoff. ‘In five years, German university brands will be recognized around the world.'”
– “Some of the weaknesses of German universities defy easy solutions. Germans spend only 1.1 percent of their gross domestic product on higher education, compared with 2.6 percent in the United States. Classrooms have been overcrowded — and standards have slipped — since the 1970’s, when Germany began guaranteeing that any graduate of a gymnasium, the more academically rigorous part of the high school system, was entitled to a place in a university, paid for entirely by the state.”
– “Yet even here [at Karlsruhe], there are criticisms. ‘In some cases, I have not been satisfied with the quality of teaching,’ [said Martin Hermatschweiler, 28, a doctoral candidate in physics]. ‘You rush from experiment to experiment without much thought or organization.’ Universities hope to address these shortcomings by becoming more like their elite American counterparts. Starting next year, they will be allowed to charge tuition of 500 euros, or $630, per semester. Karlsruhe has begun to practice selective admissions for its smaller humanities programs.”
– “Germany, like other European countries, is adopting separate bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It is also shifting authority away from powerful faculty senates to university presidents and their boards. ‘We’re moving from a republic of professors to an entrepreneurial university,’ said Peter Frankenberg, the minister who oversees universities in Baden-Württemberg, home of Heidelberg and Karlsruhe. Josef Joffe, a German journalist teaching at Stanford University this semester, said this trans-Atlantic influence was a ‘closing of the circle,’ recalling that ‘in the late 19th century, the German model of the university inspired Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago and Johns Hopkins.'”


There has been some discussion at this site on the difference between so-called ‘for-profit’ and ‘non-profit’ higher education institutions. See this dialogue for more. The last excerpt from above sheds light on what brings a university more in line with corporate models: powerful university presidents and boards of trustees. One could say that conversations about removing tenure, and hence powerful faculty senates, may be less about professorial views and salaries and more about creating a corporate university by shifting power. – TL


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