Magazine article Newsweek International

A German Harvard? Universities Are Plagued by Bureaucracy and a False Sense of Egalitarianism. New Reforms May Not Help

Magazine article Newsweek International

A German Harvard? Universities Are Plagued by Bureaucracy and a False Sense of Egalitarianism. New Reforms May Not Help

Article excerpt

Byline: Stefan Theil

Just over 60 years ago, Germany's universities were world beaters. Berlin, Heidelberg and Gottingen churned out Nobel Prize winners when Harvard, Princeton and Stanford were sleepy country clubs that could only dream of one day being as grand. These days Germans are aghast at the diminished state of their universities. Overcrowded and underfinanced, they produce too few students with often outdated skills. Those who survive a dropout rate of 27 percent are, on average, 29 years old when they graduate with their first degree--a world record. Innovation and entrepreneurship have suffered. The last time a German won a Nobel was three years ago--and he was doing his research in the United States. Today it's the Germans looking up to the likes of Harvard.

To be sure, the rest of Europe faces a similar problem. In Britain, controversy over a new law giving the country's cash-strapped public universities a much-needed tuition hike almost cost Prime Minister Tony Blair his job. In France, top universities like the Sorbonne or INSEAD are still competitive, but nonelite institutions are struggling. The Germans, though, have set their sights highest. Declaring that 2004 would be "the year of innovation," Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in December vowed to create nothing less than "a German Harvard." A new tier of "elite" universities, Schroder promised, would reinvigorate the German economy and be on par with America's leading institutions by the end of the decade.

Never mind the gargantuan task ahead. The idea alone is close to a German revolution. For decades Germans have prided themselves on their egalitarianism in education, just as elsewhere in their society. The entire university system has been geared to advance that holy grail. Selective admissions were abolished decades ago, along with tuition payments. A degree from one university was supposed to be worth just as much as another. Laws and regulations ensured that every university would be run exactly the same, turning these once proud institutions into virtual extensions of the government bureaucracy. Professors and staff became civil servants, earning the same pay at every university, based on seniority rather than merit. Even today the idea of students' rating their professors--standard practice in America--is unheard of, reeking of nasty competition and unholy pressure to perform. Elite? Nein, danke!

This craving for state-controlled equality has fueled the problems German universities must deal with today. …

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