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German University Reform: Facing Up to Major Change

This week, as part of the launch of Next Wave in Germany, we are starting a series of articles on the present situation and ongoing changes of higher education system in Germany.

Traditionally very strong in basic research, German universities are currently debating how best to incorporate better training for young scientists, the commercialization of both research and education, and how to remain competitive in the increasingly global world of science. Over the next couple of weeks we will be inviting policy-makers, administrators, and representatives of young German scientists to share with you their opinions on what needs to be done to make the higher education system fit for the 21st century.

Much needs to be done! As one of our invited corespondents, Peter Nick, says, "despite decades of continuous struggle for reform [of the university system], little or nothing has changed." Many of the problems facing the German system are the same being faced by scientists around the world, others are country specific. To help set the scene for non-German readers of Next Wave, we've put together a guide to the basics of the German system. We hope this encourages members of our growing international community to take part in this discussion.

Challenges facing Germany include career advancement for young scientists, who generally have to wait a long time before they can become group leaders; how best to teach young scientists the transferable skills which are essential in today's job market; how to encourage more international students and scientists to consider studying or working in Germany; and how to tackle the drain of expensively trained scientists either abroad or away from research into alternative careers.

Finding solutions to these challenges and finding new solutions to them will not only affect Germany's scientific community but also Germany's standing within the new knowledge-based world economy. As Max Huber, vice president of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and special delegate of the federal government puts it in his article: "If we continue to merely watch this international competition from the sidelines, we are consciously missing out on our chances for the future in this area. For a country such as Germany, which is dependent on exports, the economic decline is then predictable."

It is not all doom and gloom however, signs of hope are to be found. Beside a valuable heritage--German universities provide a fascinatingly rich spectrum of subjects, allowing students to develop highly personalized curricula, and are well known for their high academic level. More and more new initiatives are being developed and implemented. Young and motivated scientists are setting up new courses and discussing and introducing innovative ways of teaching. In the second article of our series, Peter Nick, a founding member of the so-called "Ringberg Circle" and senior lecturer at Freiburg University, explains how in 1996 a group of scientists, students, and policy-makers concerned about the future of research in German universities came together to discuss what action was required to improve their education and training.

Coming up over the next few weeks we'll be posting views from the heads of German Universities; learning more about educational quality control and benchmarking; and hearing about exciting projects put together by young scientists to build their ideal university.

Please feel free to contribute to our discussion, bring it to life, and make it your discussion by using our forum section or sending your thoughts to our German editor Robert Metzke: