Introduction: Looking Back: Higher Education Reform in Germany

By Goztepe-Celebi, Ece; Stallmann, Freia et al. | German Policy Studies, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Introduction: Looking Back: Higher Education Reform in Germany


Goztepe-Celebi, Ece, Stallmann, Freia, Zimmer, Annette, German Policy Studies


The history of higher education reform in Germany is rooted in the beginning of the 19th century. The victory earned by Napoleon over the Prussian army in 1806 led to comprehensive restructuring of the institutions of the Prussian State, including far-reaching reforms of the universities. These reforms created the persuasive academic basis for the modern Research University with the construction of the University of Berlin between 1808 and 1810. Wilhelm von Humboldt's contribution has been essential as the main principles underlying "his university", i.e. academic freedom and unity of research and teaching, have served as a model of reference throughout the history of German higher education (Humboldt reprinted in 1968).

The Prussian university system, which became a model type, not only for Germany, relied on the productive tension between the academic and the administrative spheres. Faculty members were controlling academic issues, whereas state bureaucrats were taking care of decisions concerning personnel and budgets. Thus while power within universities was mainly held by full professors, the famous so-called mandarins, a university's autonomy was restricted by administrators, who carefully guarded the entrance to civil service positions when considering new appointments (Katzenstein, 1987, p 298). In Humboldt's conception he had created a system, in which wise ministers nurtured a fiercely independent academic resource, the university, which, in turn, provided even wiser ministers to successive governments.

In the Imperial era (1870-1914), the rise of the modern system of specialised and large-scale research and the parallel growth of an expert society which demanded academically trained, but not necessarily broadly educated professionals, lead to a diversification of higher education in Germany. Several new academies for middle--level professionals were created in this period (Turner, 2001, p 13/14). Universities were no longer exclusively perceived as being the institutions for educating ministry officials for the growing bureaucracy of the Empire, but by this time they had also become training institutions for managers and engineers of Germany's thriving industrial sector (Ellwein 1992).

National Socialism had a devastating impact on academic life in Germany. After 1933, professors' claims to leadership and freedom of teaching and research disappeared, due in part to political manipulation, but also to passive acceptance or even active collaboration of many German academics, who by no means served as role models for leadership and individual courage. The majority of German university teachers were not in opposition to the Nazi regime. With respect to career development, some university professors even benefited from the brain-drain that took place under the Nazi regime, while others tried to retain autonomy by simply adapting to the new system (Pfetsch, 1994, p 226).

After the Second World War within the two German States, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), two very different systems of higher education developed. In the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Humboldt tradition was systematically undermined in keeping with Marxist theories, which led among others to the functional separation of research from teaching (Reinschke, 1994, p 140 and 152ff). In the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) the traditional Ordinarienuniversitat of the late 19th century, including the prestigious status of full professors, was nostalgically idealised. After the Nazi period, West German universities perceived state intervention as a threat to intellectual freedom and successfully strove to maintain a high degree of autonomy, that was even higher than it had been before the Second World War. Universities' corporate self-governance was enhanced, now expanding to areas previously controlled by state administration. …

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