As some of the more internationally minded readers of this blog will know (and presumably any German readers will know it), there has just been a general election in Germany, and this has resulted in the prospect of a slightly new government consisting of a coalition between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), their Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). This is ‘slightly’ new in the sense that this government will be replacing a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD), the so-called ‘grand coalition’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) will remain in office, but her party has actually lost some electoral ground, and is only able to stay in power on the back of a major electoral boost for the Liberal and business-friendly FDP.
If you’re mot much into German politics then your eyes are probably glazing over right now, so let me get to the point. It struck me that it might be interesting to see what the new coalition partners have in mind for higher education in Germany. A few weeks ago in this blog I pointed out that German universities consistently and seriously under-perform in international terms and hardly appear in the league tables, and I suggested that what is missing there is a concept of institutional autonomy and strategic direction. So could all this change?
The most detailed proposals are those in the election manifesto of the FDP, which (if you read German) you can see here. The party suggests in this document that the key problems in German higher education are lack of financial and operational autonomy for higher education institutions and inadequate flexibility. It suggests five new policy principles: (a) money should follow students – i.e. the introduction of a voucher system whereby state funding goes to students rather than to institutions, with the students choosing where to spend it; (b) the introduction of further development of tuition fees; (c) the establishment of new private not-for-profit institutions; (d) a flexible curriculum that can be determined by each institution (rather than a centralised national curriculum); and (e) the abolition of current regulations that fix student numbers for each institution centrally.
What about the CDU? It has focused on the improvement of the student loans and grants system, as well as the suggestion that industry can be encouraged to fund higher education programmes which will give them skilled graduates in areas that industry needs. But their sister party, the CSU, is the only coalition partner to emphasise the importance of research and innovation, arguing that this is essential for the further development of national prosperity.
It may also be worth mentioning that the SPD, which will now be leaving government, had in its manifesto mainly argued for free higher education and the avoidance of tuition fees.
Despite Germany’s prominence in the EU and its leading role in both politics and economics, this is a country that has not been influential in the EU-wide and global debate on higher education. Maybe the first priority for Germany should be to address that deficit and to develop a clearer view of the significance of skills, knowledge and research, in a context of institutional flexibility and autonomy. Perhaps this will be understood by the parties as they negotiate their programme for government.