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German University Reform: Raising the Phoenix From the Ashes--How Young Scientists Want to Rescue the German University

[Editor's Note: In 1996, a group of scientists and students, concerned about the future of research in German universities, came together to discuss what action was required to improve their education and training. Peter Nick, a founder member of this so called "Ringberg Circle" and senior lecturer at Freiburg University, explains the key concepts for reform that the group came up with, and the prospects that these ideas will be accepted by senior policy-makers.]

When German students discuss their dreams and visions for a modern society, universities are often perceived as a hopeless case, a moribund patient recalcitrant to any form of therapy. The impression prevails that, despite decades of continuous struggle for reform, little or nothing has changed. This is no surprise given the extremely complex structure of university policy in Germany--a policy that struggles to accommodate the antagonistic interests of the federal and Länder (state) governments, and a lobby of university professors that are famed to be aggressively conservative.

Against this background a loose association of young scientists, students, and experienced professionals of German science policy came together at Schloß Ringberg in the mountains south of Munich in early 1996. The original idea of this "Ringberg Circle" had been to discuss the prospects of young researchers in Germany, but the discussion rapidly focussed on the larger subject of prospects for reform of German universities. An increasing gap was noted between the actual requirements of a rapidly changing and increasingly flexible society and the skills that are taught at the university. This gap manifests itself in the astonishing fact that the success rate of university dropouts equals that of students with a completed university diploma. A short analysis of the job market showed that it is a combination of personal abilities (such as communication skills, the ability to handle large amounts of complex information, and social competence) along with a well-founded knowledge of the state-of-the-art in several subjects that is increasingly required. Nobody can predict what will be necessary in a few years from now, which means that individual profiles are more important than a knowledge of the classical disciplines.

This analysis of the present situation stimulated a second meeting of the Ringberg Circle where a vision of a new type of university that would allow a high degree of flexibility and individual profiling was developed. This model of a "differentiated university" allows students to combine different, intensive modular courses of around 2-year duration such as, for example, biology and journalism, or biochemistry and business management. A credit point system for each module, with credits being awarded throughout the duration of the course through continuous examination, would ensure that students graduate with equivalent degrees. Students would receive a certificate at the end of each module--awarded on the basis of continuous examination throughout the course. They could then use this certificate to enter the job market directly or combine it with another certificate to enter an academic career via a Ph.D. system. A further potential of such a system is its compatibility with the idea of "life-long learning." The average lifetime of scientific information is estimated to be less than a decade in most subjects, which means that, in order to maintain a high level of professional and scientific qualification, additional training is required at regular intervals. Why not open universities to people from companies that can come not only to learn, but also to share their experience through teaching?

It is interesting to note that although the group discussion was originally launched by a concern about the prospects for research in Germany, many members of the group quickly began to express concerns about university teaching--the two are clearly inextricably linked. The consensus prevailed among the members of the Ringberg Circle that the quality of teaching should be evaluated in standardized terms and that the results of this evaluation should contribute to the career of university teachers in the same way as scientific success in terms of publication numbers.

The key question now facing reform lobbyists is: which of these ideas can be put into practice without closing down the universities, firing all the professors (which is not possible, because they maintain permanent positions), and starting from scratch? In this respect it is heartening to see that some of the changes envisaged by the Ringberg Circle are already on the way:

  • The need for university education to be compatible across Europe has lead to a credit-point system that is in the process of being introduced in at least some of the German universities.

  • The Forestry faculty in Freiburg has recently opened the way for individual profiling using an internal credit-point system.

  • A U.S.-style bachelor degree (as an alternative to Germany's traditional diploma degree) is being introduced at least in some of the Länder.

  • First attempts to open the university to professional teaching have been launched in several cities including Freiburg and Zürich.

  • Evaluation of teaching, albeit in a superficial way, has become a standard in many universities.

Some barriers still remain that will require political action--there is no equivalent to the American tenure system in Germany, which is a harsh limitation for the independence of young scientists, and the need for a further round of scientific qualification after the Ph.D., the so called habilitation, does not really stimulate didactic enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the potential to implement some of the Ringberg ideas is larger than people used to imagine--there is a lot of "subcutaneous" reform that is possible by changing the content and organization of courses so that individual profiling is supported. The projected decrease of student numbers is expected to stimulate competition for advanced students between and within the faculties and this creates a positive atmosphere for reforms aiming to improve teaching quality and attractiveness.

It seems that the conditions for a real reform of the university system in Germany are more favorable than at any time during the past few decades. This reform will require a combination of local action and nationwide change--local action has to be accompanied and supported by political changes that are aimed to overcome the immobility of the present university system. First encouraging approaches, such as new funding programs for young scientists that try to soften the dependence on the traditional faculty hierarchy, have been launched by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Volkswagen-Stiftung. However, in order to stabilize this process of slow reform, it is necessary that senior policy-makers in Germany are confronted, at regular intervals, with the actual situation as it is perceived by young scientists. This will keep the Ringberg Circle busy over several years and the participation of new members is therefore highly welcome!

Contact Peter Nick at:

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