BRITAIN now has more than 100 universities, and there is pressure for a year-on-year increase in student numbers. Must the remorseless annual competition to obtain a university place, preferably in a prestigious institution, continue for more and more of our 18- year-olds?
Could we operate a free market in university places for everyone who achieves, say, three A-levels at grade D or above? Or rather, a free market in as many subjects as possible, barring those like medicine or dentistry that must remain selective? Impossible, people would say: some universities would be swamped; some, perhaps, left high and dry. Very true. And yet . . . are we not perhaps beginning to edge slowly in that direction?
I have been observing a relatively free market in university places from within, sitting for six years in a university chair in Bavaria after many years in an English university. What is it in the attitudes of students, academic staff and the public that makes such a system, despite a good deal of criticism, acceptable in Germany?
In Germany, all those who have the Abitur (the A-level equivalent, though in six or more subjects) are free to attend the university of their choice. As to degree courses, however, the federal government places quotas on certain disciplines - medicine, dentistry, business studies, law, for instance - and universities can apply a numerus clausus (restricted entry) on subjects that are consistently overcrowded. Nevertheless, the majority of degree programmes are open to any qualified student, at any age. As the Abitur, like the baccalaureate, covers science and arts, the university entrant has a wider choice of subjects than a student in Britain.
Students proceed at their own pace, gathering the required course certificates. No lecturer or professor knows how many students will turn up to classes at the beginning of the term. Seminars can be so overcrowded that participation of every student in sessions is impossible. Students themselves decide when they are ready to take their final examinations. Some never do!
Staff are protected from "teaching overload", however, because maximum weekly teaching hours for professors and lecturers are regulated by law. Professors, for example, teach only eight hours a week - although the whole weight of final examinations falls on them.
Even so, it is an expensive system: cheaper per student-year than in Britain, but more expensive per graduate because of the high drop- out rate and the time most students take to complete their degrees.
Some would argue that it is also a cruel system, in which the weak go to the wall. However, I was struck by the reactions of students who spent a year in British universities. They were surprised by the spoon-feeding, as they called it, that British students receive, and by the inexorable conveyor-belt pace at which they proceed towards final examinations.
But then, I never gained the impression that going to university in Germany had quite the significance it seems to have in Britain. Nor that there was the same social stigma in Germany attached to dropping out. And although Germany has ancient and …