Posted tagged ‘Germany’

Crossing the language barriers

May 25, 2011

So let’s say you’re from Indonesia and you’d like to study management through the medium of English. Where do you go? Britain? The United States? Maybe not. In fact, it’s not at all unlikely that you’ll choose to go to Germany, and that you’ll enjoy all the amenities of Kaffee und Kuchen without ever having to say the words. Germany is open for higher education business, in English. Or rather, in what they call ‘international English’, which apparently is English without a trace of a Yorkshire accent; or even an American one.

This is what we learn from a report by the BBC’s education correspondent, Sean Coughlan. Not only are German universities now offering English language programmes, they are even providing them to international students without charging them any tuition fees. How this model is financially viable could be a matter of discussion, but in the meantime it has moved Germany into top position in a league table, compiled by the British Council, of countries most friendly to overseas students – well ahead of the United Kingdom and the United States. For now the number of student places available under this model is still limited, but if this kind of provision is expanded it could have major implications.

German universities are still not in the top league of research institutions, and they will still find it difficult to match the attractions of the Ivy League and Oxbridge. But they may nevertheless develop a growing number of international students and graduates who will become ambassadors for them in their home countries. Just as English becomes more and more the dominant language globally of both trade and scholarship, its country (or countries) of origin may lose ground. The globalisation of higher education may yet involve many unexpected elements.


The German question

February 13, 2011

Twenty-one years ago today, on February 13 1990, agreement was reached between the Federal Republic of German (more commonly known then, at least in English, as ‘West Germany’) and the German Democratic Republic (‘East Germany’) to merge the two states to form a new German republic. This followed the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous year and the collapse of the Communist system, a development now commonly referred to in Germany as ‘die Wende’ (the change, or the turning point). For a little while some international politicians, including Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and France’s François Mitterrand, considered ways of stopping German unification, but the process was completed on October 3 that same year, when today’s Federal Republic of Germany was inaugurated – largely an extension of West Germany’s political structures to cover the East. In this way Germany provided the major European news item towards the end of the 20th century, a century which its politics had dominated.

Over centuries Germany had struggled to find a cultural and social identity, and although the German people have a long history, Germany itself doesn’t. It did not really come into being politically until 1871, when Bismarck managed to push through a united German ‘Reich’ in the aftermath of the Prussian military victory over France. In 1945, in the ruins that Hitler’s aggression and brutality had left behind, the idea of Germany as a political entity seemed to have been lost. Of course, the model of Germany in 1990 was not the same as that of the 1930s or indeed that of Bismarck’s new Reich in 1871, but it did restore German sovereignty and brought to an end the situation where Europe was driven by a Franco-German partnership in which France called the tune and West Germany paid for the music.

But what now? In 1990 there were many who believed that Germany was again emerging as a superpower of sorts, particularly through its growing influence in central and Eastern Europe. Nobody thinks of it in these terms now, not least because Europe as a whole has seemed to be in decline. Indeed Germany itself found the post-1990 scenario difficult. Unification turned out to be prohibitively expensive, and the Germany economy began to under-perform, and its elaborate framework of social protection began to look too expensive to be affordable. And yet, over the past year or so the German economy has been pulling out of recession and is again being seen as the engine of Europe. Right now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is showing signs of wanting to push into place a new economic, social and political settlement for Europe.

No matter how difficult it is turning out to be to keep Europe, its economy and its Euro currency stable, it is clear that Germany has a pivotal role to play. It is however also still reasonable to think of Europe as a valuable context in which German’s political ambitions are constrained, at least to an extent, while the memories of the horrors of Nazism still remain. As German unification comes of age this year, the country is continuing to grow in influence, and its partners may feel more and more confident that this influence will not be abused.

German university woes

December 8, 2010

If you think that budgetary and regulatory concerns are unique to higher education institutions in these islands, you may perhaps find some comfort in the anguish now being expressed by universities in Germany. As in Ireland and the UK, student demand for university places has increased dramatically in Germany, and as in these islands also funding has decreased. In fact the rate of increase in applications is dramatic: currently Germany’s higher education institutions educate 2.2 million students, but it is believed that by 2013 this will have increased by a further million. But even now the provision of facilities has not kept pace, and one university has been reduced to using a local church as a lecture theatre to cater for the increased numbers.

The German university rectors’ association (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz) has indicated that an additional €2 billion is needed in funding to allow the institutions to provide acceptable quality teaching for the student intake. But they also know that this funding will not be delivered, and so they are now threatening to cap the intake, thereby undermining government policy.

Germany, therefore, is also part of the global trend to throw open higher education to ever increasing numbers while reducing the financial support for their education. The country is sometimes credited with developing the modern model of the university from the time of Humboldt; like other countries it is now calling this model into question. As elsewhere, universities in Germany are desperately trying to maintain the existing system in the face of these challenges; it is arguable that there, as here, that may no longer be realistic. If the money is no longer there, we need to think again about the structures of higher education.

The World Cup

July 7, 2010

OK, it’s got to be Germany to win the soccer World Cup final. I know that there is still Spain to go, and then Holland to beat, but the sheer fluency of this young German team seems to me now to be unstoppable. At any rate, that’s my prediction.

The fallen Wall and a search for history

November 9, 2009

One of my very earliest memories is of walking with my parents and older sister on the banks of the River Elbe near Dannenberg in what was then (in the mid-1950s) West Germany. At that point the Elbe marked the border between the Federal Republic of (West) Germany and the (East) German Democratic Republic. The river here is very wide, but as I walked with my parents they explained that the men I could just about see on the other side were armed border guards and that they would stop anyone who wanted to swim across the river. The idea of wanting to swim across this vast river seemed absurd to me, and so I quietly thought of the role of these guards as being one of wanting to help people do what was in their best interests. Probably they thought the same. When just a few weeks later my father explained that one such would-be swimmer had been shot by the guards on entering the water, I did think that their particular service of helping citizens had been taken beyond reasonable limits, and as a three-year-old I changed my views.

But right then, East Germany was haemorrhaging citizens. By the end of the 1950s over two million people had fled their republic to seek a new life in ours. And so in August 1961 the most porous part of the East-West frontier – the divided city of Berlin – was closed with the erection of a wall that surrounded the western enclave. Even then, there continued to be regular (and often ingenious, but also often fatal) attempts to flee from the East to the West, including continuing attempts at the River Elbe where I walked as a child.

Today, November 9, marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; or to put it more accurately, of the decision by the East German authorities (who were at that point in serious difficulty) to open the wall to informal transit in both directions. Not long afterwards the Wall did come down, and not long afterwards again East and West Germany were reunited. And as we know, the American political economist Francis Fukuyama declared at that time that we had reached ‘the end of history‘: the competition between ideologies was over for ever, and the West’s liberal capitalism had won.

Of course history didn’t end – and for the record and to be fair, Fukuyama has developed a much more nuanced view of international affairs since then, indeed last year he supported Barack Obama’s successful bid for the US presidency. There is, it is true, no longer a recognisable global ideological conflict between a capitalist and a socialist world view; but this has given way to lots of other conflicts, some of them very hard to contain in philosophical terms. The events of September 11, 2001, and what followed them were infinitely more alarming in many ways than the articulated and feared threats of the Cold War that, at least in Europe, never produced any actual conflict. Meanwhile in the states of the former East Germany, which often have had to suffer greater economic and social problems than the former West, a significant minority have started to feel some nostalgia for the old times, a condition that has been called ‘Ostalgie’ (a contraction of ‘East Nostalgia’).

Whatever may be the view of it now, the fall of the Berlin Wall was one of the very greatest iconic moments in history, unforgettable to all those who saw it, even if just on a television screen. Even if it made no clear statements about ideologies, it did declare that attempts by a state to suppress its own citizens could not work for ever. But it did not solve all of Germany’s problems for all time, never mind the world’s. Over the years, governments have increasingly failed to deliver a vision of where they think we should go. Economic boom conditions dulled some of the questions about vision, but they have now returned with a vengeance. So the right mood for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Wall is not one of triumph and self-satisfaction, but one of re-appraisal of what western developed countries have been doing, and what they intend to do now.

That’s a job for all of us, and the time is right for it.

So what’s next for Germany?

September 30, 2009

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.

A German lesson?

August 19, 2009

In the discussion on a recent post here there was a brief exchange on German universities. In this I suggested that German universities under-perform in international terms. Indeed if you look at the world rankings issued by the journal Times Higher Education, German universities are not prominent. In fact, Germany’s number 1 institution is Heidelberg University, which comes in at number 57 (actually Ireland’s top university is ranked higher, though I forget which one that is). And the only other German university in the top 100 is the Technical University of Munich at number 78.

There are a number of interesting questions one could ask about this. Why does a country that has the world’s fourth largest economy not score more highly in higher education? Why is the country that arguably produced the model for modern higher education in the Humboldt framework not a torchbearer for excellence? What is it that they are doing wrong, and what do they need to do to correct it? 

I also wonder whether this casts some doubt on one German institutional structure which is sometimes thought to have been a progressive and imaginative initiative – the Wissenschaftsrat (translated on its own web page as the rather clunky ‘German Council of Science and Humanities’). This body is supposed to review and monitor higher education policy and propose improvements and reform. It has a ‘Scientific Committee’ and an ‘Administrative Committee’ – the former looks at broad educational and research issues, but the latter proposes actual measures; and this latter committee is composed not of academics but officials.

Perhaps the lesson is this – or at any rate this is what I am wondering, subject to correction: that Germany has not hit upon the idea of university autonomy, but rather has a centralised system of public and political control (though admittedly devolved to state governments, or Länder). And maybe this underscores again that global excellence cannot be achieved on that model. The chairman of the Wissenschaftsrat recently suggested in an interview that individual universities should find their own niche and specialisms so as to excel; but if that is the answer, it is only achievable by allowing each institution to develop its own special strategy on an autonomous basis, subject obviously to proper accountability.

But as we struggle in Ireland with questions about the appropriate level of monitoring and control, the German lesson may be a valuable one. We have an opportunity to continue to develop our higher education system so that it may punch above its weight internationally and attract both knowledge and investment to Ireland. We should not put that at risk; the German model does not work.

In praise of a political leader

February 1, 2009

Just over a month ago, on December 23, the former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt turned 90. To mark the occasion, I bought his latest book, Ausser Dienst (the title is translated by his US publishers Random House as ‘Off Duty‘, which is not quite correct), a rather intriguing mixture of recollections and reflections. The concluding chapter in particular is worth reading; here he sets out the values and virtues which he believes need to underpin a sustainable democratic society.

For me, Helmut Schmidt was one of the three key figures of post-War Germany (the other two were West Germany’s first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and Schmidt’s immediate predecessor Willy Brandt). One of his key contributions as head of government between 1974 and 1982 to German public life was to inject a sense of self-confidence based on the idea that democratic principles had taken firm root in German society; he saw off two of the most serious challenges to the state, in the form of the oil shocks of the early 1970s and the assaults of the Baader-Meinhof gang later that decade. A supremely articulate and self-assured person, he was also highly influential in international circles; Charles Haughey when Taoiseach (Prime Minister) in Ireland was an admirer.

After he left office, Schmidt went into newspaper publishing and has for many years been co-publisher of the influential weekly German newspaper, Die Zeit. There, despite his age, he continues to play an active role in regular editorial meetings.

Just after Schmidt assumed the office of Chancellor in 1974 I left Germany for the second and last time, and while my links to my country of birth have become looser over the years, a small number of its major figures have continued to engage my interest. Helmut Schmidt is one of these. Every successful country needs to experience leadership that provides a sense of direction and vision, while also showing respect for democracy, openness and transparency. West German was lucky to have several leaders with these characteristics. In my view, the greatest of these was Schmidt.

Christmas mood

December 5, 2008

Just over a week ago I was able to spend a little time browsing through an Austrian Christmas fair. Doing so always takes me back to my childhood in Germany. Maybe it’s because our childhood memories manage to retain something of the excitement and mystery of the child’s-eye view, and maybe it’s because my German childhood ended when we moved to Ireland (I was seven years old at the time), but I could not help feeling that Germans (and Austrians) ‘do’ Christmas better than we do. The smell of ginger Christmas pastries, and the Glühwein (mulled wine), the quaint stalls and the music all combine to create what at least to me is a unique atmosphere.

I brought back too much, however. It’s wonderful where it is, but I am not sure how well it travels. But try as I might, I cannot get quite the same feeling of Christmas when I walk down Grafton Street in Dublin, even with the lights and decorations and cheesy music coming from the Brown Thomas store. I don’t often miss Germany, but this time of year I do, just a little bit.