Shake-up ends Germany's cosy university life

Click to follow
GERMANY'S middle-aged students are to be turfed out of their cosy alma mater, their professors submitted to independent scrutiny, and state funding of universities will be linked to performance.

These and other proposals were approved by the lower house of the Parliament yesterday, heralding a revolution in the German world of learning. While the argument over some aspects of the controversial Further Education Bill is set to reverberate in the upper chamber of the Bundesrat, the most important changes will come into effect in the next academic year.

It takes, on average, more than seven years for a German to get his or her university diploma. Under the new law, they should be able to attain their Masters in four and a half years. Institutes will also be allowed to introduce courses leading up to a shorter Bachelor's degree.

To hurry them along, universities will henceforth be compelled to test their students' progress in examinations, and even to expel those who repeatedly fail to make the grade. Endless re-takes will not be tolerated.

After years of debate and commissions of inquiry, the politicians have discovered the formula that will not only help focus the scholars' minds, but should also channel tax-payers' money more effectively.

The arithmetic that academics have failed to grasp is as follows: university funding has remained static for the last 20 years, while the number of students has doubled. The students, subsidised to the hilt and paying no fees, were staying on longer and longer, increasing congestion in the lecture theatres. In a fast-moving world, German undergraduates often hit the job market in their thirties, their knowledge already well out of date.

The next generation of graduates will now be younger, leaner and, hopefully, better qualified. With the laggards out of the way, universities should be able to devote more attention to students who are not there simply to enjoy the social life.

Standards are to be raised, too. Under the new law, curricula will be more tightly organised and regularly monitored by independent inspectors. Part of the state's contribution will be subject to the performance of staff in teaching as well as research.

The progress of women through the faculties will be another factor the authorities will take into account when doling out the money. An estimated

5 per cent of academic staff are women, confined mostly to the lower and middle rungs of the career ladder.

The students will be able to mark their lecturers' performance. Research will be evaluated by peer reviews, and both the ability to teach and academic achievement will count for promotions.

Universities will also be allowed to select their students. The present system is a lottery. Applicants are sorted according to their grades but are then distributed among Germany's seats of learning. Some courses, such as medicine, can limit their intake, but most cannot. The new law will allow universities to make some selection themselves, but only for the limited intake courses, and only for 20 per cent of the places available.

Tens of thousands of students took to the streets at the end of last year, sworn to fight this Bill. They may be back next month, when the Bill goes to the upper chamber for approval. The Social Democrats and the Greens are fighting a provision which would allow universities to fine students who want to re-take a year. Another messy compromise looms.