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"Enough Complaining!"

Interview: Manuel J. Hartung und Thomas Kerstan

An interview with the great educational reformer Hildegard Hamm-Brücher about Bachelor, Master and the democratisation of Germany's universities.

"Enough Complaining!"© Deutscher Bundestag/ParlamentsarchivDr. Hildegard Hamm-Brücher, Berlin 1980
DIE ZEIT: Mrs Hamm-Brücher, without you many students wouldn't be studying at all. You were decisive in driving the expansion of the universities. 50 years ago there were 250,000 students in West Germany, today there are two million throughout Germany. Are you proud of that?

HILDEGARD HAMM-BRÜCHER: I'm not the type to be interested in pride. When I became state secretary in the Federal Ministry of Education in 1969, the Science Council had already developed its great expansion plans. I only continued to advance the whole thing. When the universities were expanded more and more, I was relieved: thank God, we did achieve something back then!

DIE ZEIT: What drove you - and along with you an entire group of educational reformers - to force the expansion of the universities?

HAMM-BRÜCHER: We wanted to make the universities more democratic and remove the inequalities in educational opportunities that Ralf Dahrendorf...

DIE ZEIT: ... author of the programmatic book Education is a Civil Right ...

HAMM-BRÜCHER: ... had described with the collective term of the »Catholic working-class girl from the country«: Catholics, working-class children, girls and the rural population were significantly disadvantaged. The idea that education is a civil right and enables upward social mobility was non-existent in many circles in this country. Parents said, »Why should our daughter struggle through a degree when she'll be getting married anyway?« Many talented men couldn't go to university either, because their parents couldn't afford it. On the other hand, how many unqualified students were at the universities even then, just because their parents had big enough purses to support them until they completed their studies! I think as a percentage, there were just as many unsuitable students then as there are today.

DIE ZEIT: Were you surprised at how successful the expansion of the universities was? For a long time no-one expected there would ever be two million students.

HAMM-BRÜCHER: Indeed. Back then we couldn't imagine there would ever be more than one million students. Then came the baby boomers, and more and more school leavers, especially women, headed for the universities. Then the finance ministers took control; they claimed it wasn't necessary to invest additional funds in the universities, intakes would soon be lower again, then the money would be enough; »tunnelling through«, it was called. As a result, quantitative expansion was not followed by qualitative adjustments. I advocated a tiered university system in the Anglo-American style early on.

DIE ZEIT: A tiered university system in the Anglo-American style? You already suggested in the 70s what was not to be introduced in Germany until the late 90s with the Bachelor and Master degrees?

HAMM-BRÜCHER: Yes. The comprehensive universities described in our model anticipated what is now taking place by means of the so-called Bologna process - the expansion of the universities was to be accompanied by their restructuring. We wanted every university to offer a basic degree that would allow the degree holder to start a career. The lion's share of graduates was first to gain experience in employment. Later they were to have the opportunity of taking a postgraduate course, comparable to today's Master. I came across this model shortly after World War II in Harvard: we lacked a structure of this kind. For me it was about the idea of maintaining quality despite an increasing quantity of students, and distilling the quality from the quantity, so to speak. When Bachelor and Master were finally introduced, I felt a certain satisfaction: now they were doing what I had been demanding for so long!

DIE ZEIT: Why was it possible to expand the universities so quickly, while their restructuring only succeeded after some delay?

HAMM-BRÜCHER: The German Chancellor at the time, Willy Brandt, not only wanted to risk more democracy, but also more education. But his attention was fully occupied by the political, social and economic agreements with the countries of the Eastern Bloc; his successor, Helmut Schmidt, wasn't very interested in the universities. Also, environmental issues became increasingly important to the public, and education faded into the background.

DIE ZEIT: So it's all a matter of which issues are in vogue?

HAMM-BRÜCHER: I can also offer a very primitive explanation for the delay in restructuring: higher education policy doesn't win elections! Hans-Dietrich Genscher once said to me, »Why don't you choose another field - education and university policy don't win more voters!« In addition, many education policy makers today lack passion and stamina. They're afraid to talk straight.

DIE ZEIT: Is "talking straight" even desirable? The fact that education policy was so politicised in the 60s and 70s damaged it.

HAMM-BRÜCHER: I'm not in favour of the party politicisation of education policy. But it does have to be political! Parliaments are after all staffed by politicians. You have to take your allies where you find them.

DIE ZEIT: You were often attacked both by conservatives and by progressives.

HAMM-BRÜCHER: I was always in the thick of the argument and, admittedly, all the fighting made me weary. I was caught in the middle of everything: on the one hand young revolutionaries wanted to push through suggestions I thought went too far. There were tomatoes whizzing around my head, and on one occasion even stink bombs. »The red apple doesn't fall far from the brown tree«, I shouted - and made the students even angrier at me. On the other side were the conservatives, who wanted to reverse all the changes. I was a red flag to the CSU, you can barely imagine that anymore today.

DIE ZEIT: Currently, an alliance of conservatives on the right and the left are opposing the Bachelor. They say that it will mean the death of Humboldt's educational ideal, and that it accelerates the economisation of the universities.

HAMM-BRÜCHER: But that's the same mistake again! It would be terrible if forces like that became stronger again. I very much hope there will be no rollback, and would like to see the Bologna reform continued. We have no other option than the tiered system: how else do you want to allow 40 percent of a generation, two million people in total, to go to university? If there were 100,000 students you could of course say: please, stay at university for a few more years, travel for free, have cheap movie and theatre tickets. That's no longer possible today. Even if we were to become a land of economic miracles again, we would never be able to finance overlong study periods. A degree course isn't just for one's personal pleasure.

DIE ZEIT: But what you are saying is exactly what amounts to the economisation of the universities!

HAMM-BRÜCHER: And why not? Economisation is not an ideological term for me. A sensible rationalisation was overdue in order to counteract overlong study periods and the lack of efficiency at the universities.

DIE ZEIT: Even if Humboldt's university falls by the wayside?

HAMM-BRÜCHER: Oh, but that's already long gone! There are too many people who romanticise the old university. There's no doubt that it achieved great things, but it was also the pillar of an authoritarian society. It brought forth good scientists, but it didn't promote timely reforms. DIE ZEIT: Many students are also complaining: they say their lesson plans are jam-packed, they have to spend all their time preparing for exams ...

HAMM-BRÜCHER: The new form of study has to be made palatable to students. I think it's right that we take them by the hand a little more. But many universities have overloaded their degree courses and simply crammed the material of a Magister course into the shorter time span of a Bachelor degree course. What we need here is new ideas. But most of those responsible at universities have too few ideas! They want to do their jobs, be left in peace and complain. We have to stop whining and complaining! There's nothing fundamental to be changed about the Bologna Accord. If you allow students to study anywhere in Europe, you have to ensure comparability.

DIE ZEIT: The rollback is already happening where tuition fees are concerned. In Hesse they have been abolished after the CDU lost the state elections. The Saarland may follow suit.

HAMM-BRÜCHER: I regret that. I have never understood why I shouldn't pay for my children to go to university. Above a certain parental income there should be tuition fees. Fairness means that everyone who meets the requirements can study. No-one is asked what his or her parents earn. But that people who could pay for a degree course don't have to pay a penny makes no sense to me.

DIE ZEIT: If you had to go to university again today, where would you enrol?

HAMM-BRÜCHER: I would want to study at a university where I could combine a certain degree of organisation of my course with time for something else - at the Jacobs University in Bremen for example, in Harvard of course, possibly in Constance. If you have a well-ordered degree course, you have far more time for other things than those people who just lurk about.

From DIE ZEIT :: 29.10.2009