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How German and British Universities Can Learn from One Another

By Sandra Richter

British universities are regarded in Germany as the benchmark for all reforms. This is absurd.

How German and British universities can learn from one another© foto.fritz - Fotolia.com
When British philosophy student Kate, 23, tells Germans about her academic dream destination, she is greeted with uncomprehending looks: "What? Germany?" - "Yes, Germany." Kate's wish sounds paradoxical. Overzealous education reformers want to introduce to Germany a university system that they regard as exemplary and efficient: the Anglo-American system. However, since her year abroad, Kate longs to return to this idiosyncratic country where you have to find your own approach to ideas. She wants to study for her doctorate there and be able to thoroughly and unhurriedly explore complicated concepts regarding the decline of civilisation, Karl Popper's attacks on totalitarian philosophies and current positions vis-à-vis the much-discussed "battle of the cultures".
The United Kingdom is in fact the wrong template for Germany's reforms. Its universities are not faring any better than our own. Great Britain's universities have developed into education factories. The only thing they have in common with the campus idylls behind the ivy-covered walls of Oxbridge is the scenery. Since the Thatcher era and increasingly with the Labour government, the workings of the academic machine have been characterised by three trends: firstly the growing under-financing of the universities, secondly the pampering of the "customers", i.e. the fee-paying students, regarded as the means to help the universities out of their financial misery, and thirdly the bureaucratic quality control of their personnel, known as micromanagement. Great Britain is selling off its academic family silver in order to position itself in the top rankings of the academic world market. We are among the credulous buyers in the junk market for academic prestige.

The tightening of the purse strings from the Thatcher era continues

But British universities like German universities are primarily financed by state grants and are groaning under a mountain of debt. Although British universities have slimmed down their expenditure considerably, the tightening of the purse strings that began in the Thatcher era in the eighties continues. Like their German colleagues, British university managers therefore tailor their ambitious academic plans to the interests of various financial backers. They organise their own events to solicit donations from alumni, hire out lecture halls and seminar rooms and chase after third-party funding and tuition fees.

The lofty goal of the British government to bestow university education on 50 percent of a year group significantly expands the foraging ground. Student numbers and tuition fees are increasing faster than in Germany. While European students paid 1,000 euros for a Batchelor's degree a few years ago, they now pay over 4,000 euros. Overseas students, Asians and Americans, have to shell out more than three times as much and are therefore accepted in preference, as long as they are suitable for the course.

British universities, like German universities, are also expanding their academic foraging ground with new Master's and doctorate programmes. Unlike in Germany, however, one criterion counts above all others: marketability. Programmes with a practical orientation such as Asian or European Studies are some of the biggest sellers on the market for academic courses. These create a short-lived academic landscape where knowledge goes out of date quickly.

The hard-working student elite have become customers wanting to buy new products and a comprehensive service. With the emphasis very much on pampering, the customers are mollycoddled from the taster course right through to the exam.

The name of the game is "school-like" regimentation - as has been the case in Germany since the introduction of Bachelor's and Master's courses. Nothing is left to chance. Most courses have been "on the books" for decades and tried and tested on numerous generations of students. Essay subjects are pre-defined, exams rehearsed. A regimented system like this guarantees that no one fails - and promotes academic mediocrity.
The result is streamlined pragmatism. The Bachelor's degree prepares students for a career in a non-academic sphere. A historic reason for this pragmatism is that the British have no concept of the German idea of "Bildung", which means all-round education, not just formal learning. The institution and its traditions are also paramount and the individual has to function within this framework. Although this does require initiative and research-based learning, these qualities are rarely nurtured, except for instance in the weekly one-hour tutorial that is still the norm at Oxbridge, though even this has now become a subject of controversy.

British universities are not the only ones to have their future plans threatened by pampering and consumer mentality - we in Germany are about to come up against the very same problems that Britain now faces. Having completed their Batchelor's degree, how can students then be motivated to apply themselves to a Master's degree or even a Ph.D. (doctorate)? And how are they to pay for it? Having spent a lot of money on a Bachelor's degree, people are bound to wonder whether they should invest still more in an academic qualification that - apart from a Master's in economics or law - will only be useful to them in the world of academia.

British teaching staff are grappling with questions like these, whenever they can still find the time to address them. The image of the British scholar, half gentleman, half academic, is a thing of the past. Like German academics, British university tutors are administrators, appraisers, project managers and publicists rolled into one. Their performance is carefully monitored every year internally within their university. Their salary and position depend on the results of their performance evaluation with regard to research, teaching and administration.

Every eight years, they also have to undergo the state-run research and teaching assessment exercises. These are structured differently from the appraisals within the German Initiative for Excellence. The exercises extend across all British institutes, are hugely costly and time-consuming, and form the basis for distributing considerable sums of public money according to a graded scale. Although these exercises guarantee the visibility of the high-performing new generation of academics and ensure dynamic further development in research and teaching, criticism of them is growing. The exercises control academia from above, tie up human resources and lead to special business cycles that are alien to the academic world when it comes to meetings, publications and study programmes.

Germans and Britons can learn from each other

Although the market-oriented British system currently has the upper hand in international rankings, a strong dose of Humboldt would do it the world of good. The German university system, for its part, can only recover if it redefines Humboldt's market value. Students of today are used to networked thinking in a digital Nirvana - ideal conditions for independent experiments exploring nature, technology and the psyche.

We need to learn from each other! The best university system of all lies somewhere in between the British Isles and the Continent, in a shared European future. Unlike Germany's large-scale universities, British universities still offer small courses and have flat hierarchies and the shrinking remnants of a debate-friendly culture. The strengths of German universities lie in the interplay between research and teaching. These strengths are all-round education and initiative - values that, sadly, are currently not highly prized because they cannot be regulated. If we don't want to ultimately reform these values entirely out of existence, we should distance ourselves from ultra-perfectionist evaluations, make our universities less "school-like" and promote the independence of universities of applied sciences as well as training for professions. Only if we develop the strengths of our much-berated system according to a European vision of further education will we have an opportunity to polish up our academic family silver for the competitive global knowledge market.

Über die Autorin
Sandra Richter, 34, Professorin für Neuere Deutsche Literatur an der Universität Stuttgart, war bis 2007 Professor of German am King's College in London

academics.com :: August 2008