West Germany: Extent of ‘education explosion‘in last 30 years

By Zubeida Mustafa

THE end of the West German economic miracle has affected the prospects of university graduates in the country. Nearly five per cent of them are without jobs and many more have been obliged to take up positions which a person with lower qualifications could have easily filled.

Education-01-11-1984Yet the enrolments in the West German universities and other institutions of higher education have not gone down. The big debate in West Germany today is about the role of the universities in national life. Industrialists and businessmen perceive these institutions as being designed to serve industry and the economy.

At an education conference in West Berlin recently, some representatives of the trade and industry sector expressed the view that universities should aim at supplying the labour market with qualified people when the economy is on the upswing. When times are bad, the institutions of higher education should take the pressure off the job market by acting as an “academic waiting room”.

Foreign students

But this is not the opinion of educationists and academics. Although they complain of overcrowding at the universities, they have not been demanding a cutback in student enrolment. One just has to look at the figures to realise the extent of the “education explosion” which has taken place in West Germany in the last thirty years. In 1950 only six per cent of school leavers were going in for higher studies. Nowadays nearly 20 per cent enrol at the 229 universities, teachers training colleges and technical colleges which make up the higher education system. The number of students in these institutions is 1.2 million today and it is expected to rise to 1.5 million in the next few years.

The West German universities have also opened their doors to the outside world. The number of foreign students has grown — there now being 58,000 of them. Moreover, many of them have entered into cooperation with foreign universities.

The pressure on some universities has been immense. Thus Tubingen, which celebrated its 500th anniversary seven years ago, has grown phenomenally. It had 8,000 students on its roll in the sixties. Now it has 23,000.

rapid growth in university enrolment has partly been a result of the policy of the Social Democrat Government which was in power in Bonn for over a decade in the seventies. It sought to encourage young people of all backgrounds to go in for higher studies. This not only led to an increase in the number of students in the higher education institutions, it opened up the universities to people from all strata. While in the fifties, only 4 per cent of the freshmen students came from working class families, this figure has gone up to’ 17 per cent. Now nearly 40 per cent of the university students are women compared with 20 per cent in the fifties.

University education has been made more and more easily accessible by various reforms which have been introduced over the years in the school system. A child who plans to go in for higher technical education enters an intermediate school and then a higher technical school after completing five years of primary schooling. This entitles him to eventually gain admission to a polytechnic. Others go to the grammar school.

But those who have missed the opportunity to attend these schools to qualify for the university can catch up through the “second education route”. This entails attendance at evening general secondary schools, evening grammar schools and further education colleges.

What the academics feel is affecting education standards is the Government’s policy of not opening any new university. The last university in West Germany was established in the early seventies. Ever since, the number of students has been growing leading to overcrowding.

I found the university system in West Germany quite interesting in many ways. First of all, it is totally decentralised. The universities are the responsibilities of the Laender (state), though the Federal Government in Bonn might draw up the general regulating principles. It also finances special research projects and funds the construction of .university buildings. .

Otherwise it is the Land Government which funds the universities under its jurisdiction. Universities also manage to collect funds from private sources. Thus Tubingen received a number of private donations on its 500th anniversary.

This multiplicity of sources of finances enables the institutions to preserve their autonomy and academic freedom. Moreover, the students are not required to pay a fee for their tuition. In fact, if a student is not able to pay for his living expenses, the state helps and the student can draw benefits partly as loans and partly as grants.

The organisation of the West Gerrnan universities has developed over the years and has been influenced by many outside factors. The modern concept of the university system was developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of Berlin University in 1810. He elaborated the idea of unity of research, teaching and education as the cornerstone of university education.

During the Nazi period, the universities were stripped of their academic freedom. In the post-war years these institutions regained their autonomy but their structures remained unchanged. The professors had full control over their faculties and decided what was to be taught and the rules to be laid down for the students.

This has, however, now changed. The students’ troubles of the sixties had much to do in bringing about the changes. Although the student unrest started in Paris (led, incidentally, by a German student leader) it spread all over Europe. In West Germany, Frankfurt and West Berlin were most seriously affected.

Now the students as well as other academic assistants are equally involved in the decision-making process. The large faculties of yesteryears have given way to smaller disciplines and nowhere do the professors wear the academic gown which was the symbol of their authority.

Tubingen is a typical example of how a West German university is now organised, though this institution is unique in some ways. Financed by the Government of Baden-Wurtemberg, the University of Tubingen caters, to use the words of one of its officials, to the needs of not the Land alone but the whole region. Located in a small town with 70,000 inhabitants, of which a third are students and many more attached to the university, the Eberhard-Karls- Universitat (named after its founder) has sixteen faculties.

Each faculty is governed by an elected body. The elected bodies of the faculties send their representatives to the Senate and the Administrative Committee. The President of the University is elected by an electoral college for eight years. The students have of late been quite passive. Of course, they express concern about a number of political issues, the employment situation in the country and their studies, but this is expected of them. They are organised into groups and all political parties have their students’ wings which are active in the campuses — this, though, cannot be taken too literally for Tubingen whose buildings are scattered throughout the town.

Source: Dawn 1 Nov 1984