Universities of the Future: Reform ... or Revolution?

Y oung scientists get a seat at the table in discussions about German universities of the future.

Reform is prescribed from above; revolution comes from below. And PhD students and postdocs in Germany are frustrated that their voices have not been properly heard in the discussions surrounding university reform in Germany. But now they have been invited to find new answers to the question "What should German universities of the future look like?"

A Consultation in Three Acts

In June 2002, five partner organisations--the Embassy of the United States of America, the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, or DAAD), the Fulbright Commission, the German Rector's Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz), and the Conference Forum of the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group--invited a heterogeneous group of 100 young scientists to Bonn to exchange experiences and ideas for shaping universities of the future.

Act II involved young German scientists discussing their ideas with their US counterparts in November 2002. Following these conversations in Dresden, seven proposals were formulated for discussion with government and industry representatives in the third and final act, which took place in Berlin last month.

Young Scientists: On the Fast Track

The academic junior league is prepared to give up some privileges, even if this may seem politically incorrect to many of academia's stakeholders, in order to meet its objectives. For example, at the Berlin meeting the young scientists pushed for the introduction of socially balanced tuition fees, calculated according to an individual's ability to pay. This structure, they argued, will motivate students to strive for better results, and in addition it will prompt universities to create appropriate conditions for their students.

Also potentially controversial is the students' demand that the civil servant status of professors be abolished. The young scientists want professional assessment centres to be introduced, to make the process of appointment to a professorship more transparent and to facilitate careful review of professors' performance. The tenure model practised at US universities could, they think, serve as a useful model. Moreover, they argue that the job description of professors should be reviewed and become more performance-oriented.

Better instruction is a topic for junior researchers on all levels. They want senior staff to take their supervisory duties more seriously. At the same time, junior staff should be less personally dependent on their advisers.

The young scientists also called upon the institutions in the German higher education system to become more focussed; one might aim to be particularly strong in engineering, for example, whereas another tries to attract the best students in biotechnology. Universities, they emphasise, should select their students so that they can further shape their profile according to their strengths. The young scientists also recommended that universities reinforce internal communication processes and develop a corporate identity. The core of the latter is a clearly defined educational mission, and this in turn is key to the effective leadership and assessment of American universities, as an institutional accreditor pointed out in one of the panel discussions.

More Attractive Career Options

Currently the only career choice for junior researchers is "up" or "out" of the university system. This does not allow for the work-life balance that has become integral to the lives of so many other professionals today. The remedy, as the young scientists see it, is for performance-oriented career models to replace contracts of limited duration for mid-level academics.

So far only 0.2% of students have enrolled in the new bachelor's and master's courses. The young scientists believe that it is unclear whether accreditation, as carried out by service agencies appointed by the accreditation council, has so far led to more clarity or more confusion following the introduction of bachelor's and master's degrees to Germany. However, what is abundantly clear is that proceedings are long and costly. Today, just 200 out of 1200 courses have been accredited, at a cost of about ?12,000 to ?15,000 per course. The procedure needs to become more streamlined and ensure a standardised study structure on a national level. The new bachelor's and master's courses will be successful only if graduates at both education levels are offered attractive jobs. Unfortunately, the industry players present at the conference were unable to offer concrete reassurances, because the new titles are still little known in many companies.

Time to Act

The transatlantic dialogue showed that our US colleagues are optimistic and flexible when reforming their universities. They have left the "old" and "obsolete" behind and have changed direction several times while experimenting. The young German researchers are keen to learn from the approach of their US counterparts.

The "Universities of the Future" conference in Berlin showed that young scientists want to ensure that the reform process does not become derailed. The young researchers have painted a tableau of the universities of the future they have in mind: flexible, transparent, competitive, and performance-oriented, allowing the individual a central role.

Germany's minister for education and research, Edelgard Bulmahn, also stepped onto the stage during this final act. Even if universities are the responsibility of the federal states in Germany, the national minister initiates the production. The latest version of the University Frame Law (Hochschulrahmengesetz), in effect since February 2002, has already laid the foundation for several points found in the seven Dresden Theses. However, the minister commented on only some of these. She underlined the fact that the government explicitly guarantees that tuition fees will not be charged--at least for the first degree (if it does not take too long). She rejected the argument that fees could be a motivation and performance tool. On the contrary, the German government specifically avoids fees in order not to discourage young people from studying.

The young researchers involved in this consultation process do not want revolution so much as evolution. They are keen that Germany's strong Humboldtian tradition of combining teaching, learning, and research should remain and that the necessary reforms should not lead to a "regulatory overkill" that destroys the ideal of liberal education. Implementing reforms of the higher education system calls for pragmatism, and the proposed reform ideas should be implemented quickly. Only then can highly qualified students and researchers be won for the future.

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