Higher Education Reform in Germany: Advocacy and Discourse

Article excerpt


Characterized by a highly complex and segmented decision-making structure and strong conventions and values, German higher education was long considered impervious to significant change. In recent years, several initiatives demonstrate both the resistance to, and prospects for, profound reforms. This article focuses on two such endeavors: the establishment of junior professorships and the introduction of general tuition fees. Both policies aim to break ironclad traditions--in the first case, the entry qualification for professorships; in the second, the principle of free education. The discourse surrounding the establishment of these initiatives has emphasized performance and competition.

The new advocacy coalitions and their opponents, however, use different frames to interpret these terms. The battle of ideas and policies regarding a reconfigured academic hierarchy has been shaped by stakeholders in the scientific community, with political actors taking a secondary role. On the other hand, the discourse surrounding the introduction of tuition fees reverses this order, with political actors taking the prominent role. Discourse patterns and involvement of political parties matter. The analysis reveals the competing rhetorical and policy frames that support policy diversity. Policy change adds to, rather than eliminates, existing structures.


advocacy; competition and performance; discourse; higher education reform; German universities; junior professors; policy diversity; tuition fees


In recent years, the area of higher education in Germany has captured the attention of policymakers and experts. Critiques of the system have catalyzed some progress, but the extent of the changes is debated. Julian Nida-Riimelin, for example, asserts that the German university system is experiencing the "greatest transformation since the beginning of the nineteenth century." (2) Others have employed terms such as paradigm shift, changing zeitgeist or leitmotif, to signify breakthroughs of new ideas and values, which include new steering and funding mechanisms, curricular changes associated with the Bologna process, (3) and the launching of so-called elite universities. In many of these positive accounts, the terms performance and competition are at heart of the discourse. (4) Policy initiatives reflect greater competition among universities for students, financial appropriations, and personnel, whereas national and international comparisons highlight performance criteria. (5) In the more skeptical camp, Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht sees the constant "flood of reforms" as therapeutic but aimless "face lifting." (6) Finally, authors such as Hans N. Weiler take a middle ground by acknowledging that substantial change is under way, but noting German universities' ambivalence towards it. (7)

Different perceptions about the degree of change are not surprising since the reform processes are still evolving, but they are also the product of a multifaceted discourse over how to interpret performance and competition. As Donald A. Schon and Martin Rein observe, policy discourse or dialogue rests "on underlying structures of belief, perception, and appreciation." To express them, political actors use "a process of naming and framing;" (8) the frame integrates "interests, values, actions, theory, and facts." (9) Actors may use similar frames but interpret them differently. Frames then inform paradigms. In hierarchical terms, paradigms capture a general direction--frames fill in the supporting details. Within new paradigms, old and new frames compete and often co-exist, yet even if a new paradigm takes hold, old ones, such as equality in access to higher education, do not disappear or become obsolete, but rather are replaced as the primary reference point. The discourse is adapted to the new paradigm.

As a result, changes are often incremental, cumulative, and add to, rather than eliminate, existing structures and policies. …