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 famous universities, enrolling at Heidelberg has little of the trauma associated with getting into, or not getting into, Oxford. Indeed, most German students are nowadays content to attend the university nearest to home.
One reason why going to university does not seem so significant may be because there is an acceptable alternative: Germany's excellent apprenticeship system. This covers a wider range of trades and professions than the English term implies - banking as well as baking, publishing as well as plumbing. An apprentice qualifies after three years, which must include day-release study at technical college, but it takes a further three years to become a Meister, entitled to employ or train others.
German students always appeared to me to be self-reliant and independent. They seem to learn at school how to study on their own. My students never had to be taught how to write a term paper, assemble a bibliography or use a big library.
However, German academics - and politicians, including Chancellor Kohl - are worried about costs, especially those that result from the time many students take to graduate. Some look with envy on our selective entry system, and would like to see a wider application of the numerus clausus. Many would welcome moves towards fixed-term degree programmes.
As German universities slowly retreat from von Humboldt's grand ideal of Lehr und Lernfreiheit (freedom of teaching and learning), Britain seems to be moving towards wider access and more flexibility in course requirements.
One of the many reasons why we could not offer open access on the German model is the plurality of our university cultures: from the cloisters on the Cam and Isis, through the 19th-century civic foundations and the Robbins-inspired greenfield campuses of the Sixties, to the new ex-polytechnic universities; not forgetting the ancient Scottish seats of learning. This lends credence to the notion that British universities constitute a kind of hierarchical order, like our persistent class system.
There is thus a danger that a free market in university places might start, perhaps by default, at the least prestigious end of the system, in the unfilled places at colleges franchised to teach degree modules. Selectivity and research funding would then become the privilege of the upper end of the university spectrum.
I support a greater access to our universities. At the same time I favour widening A-level requirements to the equivalent of the baccalaureate so that students have a broader choice of degree subjects - even if some university departments have to lower the level of freshman courses. All sixth forms should teach university study skills, to give students greater confidence. Perhaps more students should be encouraged to study nearer home.
We also badly need something like the German apprenticeship system, so attending university is not the only option for the talented and ambitious. And let us make sure that all our universities continue to be research institutes as well as centres of higher education, with no more foolish talk of 'teaching- only' institutions.
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