Future contract with a get-out clause

Federal and state governments have finally agreed on the Higher Education Pact 2020. But the agreement is only valid until 2010 and still leaves many questions unanswered

Even though its policy has provided it with many beautiful images, effective appearances and sometimes even demonstrable successes, the federal government has a veritable image problem. After all, what can be staged on the international stage in the interest of all parties involved can hardly be matched at home. The noticeable upward trend in the economy and the gratifying drop in unemployment were allowed to disappear again with the next economic downturn, because they are only partly homemade and by no means the result of a substantially well thought-out structural reform designed with foresight and aimed at securing long-term results.

The situation is similar in other policy areas: Stucco work in the health care reform, holes in the long-term care insurance, unsecured construction sites in the pension insurance and cosmetic corrections to the ailing education system, which must be placed on a fundamentally new basis in order to actually become the engine of positive and sustainable social development in the medium term.

Thanks to its comfortable majorities in the Bundestag and Bundesrat, the Grand Coalition is well placed to set a decisive course, initiate reform projects and push them forward to the point where they become irreversible in the foreseeable future. But the reality is different. Particularly in education policy, which had to be negotiated as a central social task beyond all party interests, the inability to derive common approaches and concepts for action from the largely consensual analysis of errors is evident, and these would extend far beyond the next election dates.

Label fraud

The "Higher Education Pact 2020", which was adopted by the federal government and the states at the end of last week, and which Education Minister Annette Schavan (CDU) immediately touted as a "forward-looking initiative" "to secure Germany a place among the world’s leaders in science and research", can be seen as an exemplary failure in this respect.

The agreements negotiated in December 2006, which are to come into force in the 2007/2008 winter semester, do not deserve to be called "forward-looking" for the simple reason that they have made a mockery of their full-bodied label, are initially valid only until 2010 and thus extend only a year beyond the next federal election.

But at least there will be renewed investment in education and research. By 2010, the federal government will have made some 565 million euros available to ensure that German universities are better prepared for the academic growth forecast for the coming years. At 91.370 additional university places, the states must now contribute an equal share and create a balance among themselves that takes into account the varying attractiveness of the university places.

After all, in some western German states there will soon be a shortage of several tens of thousands of seats, while even in comparatively popular university locations in eastern Germany – such as Saxony, for example – over 7.000 university places may not be used (PDF file). The exact distribution of investments and compensation payments is to be calculated from 2011 onwards on the basis of the additional freshers actually paid.

While quality advances in the area of teaching continue to be a long time coming, the supposedly top research in Germany can look forward to further grants after the warm windfall from the Excellence Initiative, the High-Tech Strategy and the six-billion-euro program.

Under the Higher Education Pact, full-cost funding of "visible" research projects is to be pursued further. Those who come out on top in the competition for funding from the German Research Foundation will now also receive so-called program allowances (overhead) amounting to 20 percent of the funding already received.

This arrangement has been in effect since 1. January 2007 already for Collaborative Research Centers, Research Training Groups and Research Centers, from 1. January 2008, but also for other newly approved research projects. The federal government alone will initially bear the costs of a good 700 million euros by 2010.

No planning certainty

The questions left open by the higher education pact will not, however, become clear by themselves. It remains unclear how the obvious and serious deficiencies in the field of teaching will be remedied. According to the latest calculations by the Federal Statistical Office, the number of junior professors increased from 102 to 617 between 2002 and 2005, but the total number of professors remained more or less constant. (If one disregards the fact that in the long-term comparison with 1995, around 1.500 positions were not filled again.)

The German Rectors’ Conference currently puts the ratio of professors to students at 1:60, and the additional income that seven German states generate through the introduction of tuition fees has led in many places at best to the award of temporary and financially limited teaching assignments and not to long-term personnel planning.

The President of the German Rectors’ Conference, Margret Wintermantel, and the President of the German Association of Universities and other Higher Education Institutions, Bernhard Kempen, recently declared the lack of planning security with regard to the recruitment of lecturers, research assistants and professors to be one of the main deficits of the German education system.

We cannot accept a further increase in the teaching load. Research time is becoming less and less. Students, however, have a right to sound academic teaching that is constantly renewed from research. Without additional staff, the universities cannot do that.

Margret Wintermantel and Bernhard Kempen

The German Rectors’ Conference and the Association of Universities and Colleges have prophylactically threatened to cut admissions across the board as a "self-defense measure," but a closer look reveals that the unfavorable support situation is only part of the problem.

The money from the higher education pact is to be used to finance a good 90.000 new university places to be financed. De facto, even the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Lander in the Federal Republic of Germany expects the number of students to increase from the current level of around two million to between 2.5 and 2.7 million between 2012 and 2014. After this peak, the numbers are expected to level off again, but probably remain consistently around 2.3 to 2.5 million, d.h.: significantly above current levels, which are already barely manageable.

If 40 percent of an age cohort in Germany were to permanently pursue a university education, that would be an important step toward catching up with the rest of the world. However, this statement only applies if the academics of the future find the best possible, high-quality conditions in research and teaching.

More study places – less quality?

The higher education pact only begins to address this ie. The German Rectors’ Conference and the Association of Universities and other Higher Education Institutions have pointed out that the actual cost of a university place is currently 7.300 euros per year. When the higher education pact was negotiated, only 5 billion euros was amed as a precautionary measure.500 euros out, that on 4.260 euros, when 127 million euros of the current total volume are going to the new federal states and the city states, so that the number of places on offer can be maintained in the desired form.

It is thus clear that an expansion of the range of courses on offer is being consciously accepted at the expense of quality.

Margret Wintermantel and Bernhard Kempen

Rolf Dobischat, President of the German Student Union, also criticizes the fact that the agreement does not provide any funds for the social and economic infrastructure of higher education. Dobischat expects significantly higher demands on the service and advisory offerings of the student unions in the coming years. For the new study sites, about 20.000 additional dormitory places to be created. According to preliminary estimates by the German Student Union, the costs to be borne by the federal states amount to around 400 million euros.

The Union for Education and Science therefore expects the federal and state governments to begin negotiations for a "Higher Education Pact II" immediately. In its current form, the ubereinkunft is "criminally underfunded and fraught with risks," says Andreas Keller of the GEW Executive Board.

20 years ago we already had a bad experience with the attempt to tunnel under the student mountain. We need more and well qualified academics in order to keep up with the international competition. Graduates at the level of sailors are no help.

Andreas Keller

Keller puts the need for investment in higher education at about 2.3 billion euros per year through 2020. This is about twice as much as the Higher Education Pact now provides for from 2007 to 2010. Even more important than the amount of money invested in education, teaching and research is the question of whether the money is being used to make structural improvements that ensure that equity and excellence coexist and reinforce each other.

However, the German education system is currently much further away from clear objectives, quality standards in research and teaching, and a decoupling of social background and educational opportunities than it is from the next billion euros.