A few weeks ago I delivered a few thoughts on German universities at a meeting in Lübeck. I was invited, I suppose, because I’ve taught and studied at U.S. universities, and have now taught at a German university for several years, and therefore have a base of comparison. The friendly folks at Lübeck suspected I might have some opinions about how German universities are structured and run. They weren’t wrong. Instead of just letting these brilliant nuggets of enlightenment fade in the memory of the conference attendees, I’d put some flesh on my notes and share them with the world.
For you busy executives who need my comments in summary form, here they are: German universities, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, set themselves the admirable goal of providing a free higher education to all students who qualified, regardless of the students’ race, gender, or economic or social class. That’s right, I said ‘free.’ The student need never pay any tuition, and receives a subsidy from the State to cover basic needs. To anyone concerned with social stratification, this appears to be – and really is – a noble endeavor.
On the way from articulation of noble principles to actual real-world practice, though, a few things went wrong. The political and social necessity of opening up the universities (or at least the prospect of a university education) to ever-larger numbers of young people led to chronic overcrowding. Because there are essentially no private German universities, all these new students came streaming into the existing public institutions, which had to be expanded at breakneck pace. The student binge also led to a poorly-planned expansion of the existing universities’ administrative apparatus. Now, universities are run like bloated bureaucracies. Finally, the over-admission has resulted in a "go-it-alone" atmosphere for students. Because the university must spread its resources over such a large cohort of students (including at least 25% who will never graduate), it sometimes fails to single out and nurture the best students.
I may be overlooking something here, but I think that these problems are easy to fix – if one just had the political will (big if, as I well realize). The biggest problem, it seems to me, is that German universities admit too many students, and don’t screen them well enough. So here are my reform ideas in a nutshell:
- To reduce overcrowding, institute a screening process to weed out prospective drop-outs before they waste years of their lives finding out they’re not really suited to university life.
- Introduce modest tuition fees – not the big loans American students face — but enough to help students focus their decision as to whether they really want to study at a uni, and to encourage them to put more effort into their work.
- Finally, slash the bureaucracy mercilessly, and re-orient it to serve the needs of students and professors.
I’ll split the discussion into a few installments. First, what German unis do right. Second, possible reforms in two or three areas, starting with de-bureaucratization, if that’s a word.
Intro: What German Unis do right
- German universities are tuition free and, theoretically, open to all qualifying students. These principles embody ideas of solidarity and social justice which are very important to the German social state. Even though a recent court decisions lets universities will soon introduce tuition fees, they’ll be tiny in comparison to the fees charged in many other countries, and there will be provisions to reduce their impact on less well-off students.
- It’s no accident that in German, as in many Romance languages, the word for education is Bildung or Ausbildung, which have overtones of ‘construction’ or ‘formation’ to them. That implies a foundation of knowledge, then a substructure, then a superstructure. In many disciplines, this systematic approach is still respected. It leaves students (at least those who pay attention and who graduate) with a thorough understanding of the subject they’ve studied, and tends to discourage the sorts of silly offerings you see offered in U.S. universities.
- Although German universities seem to be just as beset by petty politics and faculty strife as large institutions everywhere, controversies about secular, ‘real-world’ political issues are less heated. Max Weber once wrote commented that in the academic world the only one who has "personality" is one who fully concentrates on his field. ["»Persönlichkeit« auf wissenschaftlichem Gebiet hat nur der, der rein der Sache dient."] Of course they have their own political beliefs – sometimes strong ones – but the ethic of collegiality is still strong, as is the principle that an expert’s opinions should be justified by careful reasoning and evidence. Thus, when professors do speak on popular issues, they do so in soothing monotone and stick to a carefully ‘objective’ style. The idea of compromising one’s dignity by appearing on a raucous television debate, for instance, would never cross the mind of a German professor.
So far, so good. But, as you all of Germany’s many newspapers daily report, the German university system is in deep crisis. Of course, the papers say this about everything else in German society, but this time they have a point. The mainstream critique goes: our students spend far too much time studying (there’s theoretically no limit on how long they can study, and many don’t get their first degree until they’re 27 or 28); their university training doesn’t prepare them for the real world, many people go to university who really don’t have the aptitude for it.
Looking at the system as an outsider, I think many of these critiques are on-target. But there are other weaknesses that may not be apparent to people who’ve spent their lives in the system. I’ll start with my favorite whipping boy, the bureacracy
As in many other parts of German society, the vast network of petty rules and regulations
buggers boggles the imagination. Nowhere is the analogy of bureaucracy to ivy as apt: its roots have chewed deep into the structure of the university, and irreparably damaged it.
Some examples, among hundreds I could name:
- To receive compensation for the travel costs to a seminar, you have to fill out a form that not only required every piece of information related to my university post, but also application of a complex per-kilometer formula and answers to a bewildering variety of irrelevant questions, such as whether you brought a trained dog (Diensthund) with me.
- A professor who wants to hire an ex-student to do some simple computer work faces a lengthy inquisition, because this sort of temporary employment doesn’t fit into any of the existing categories.
- To get a new piece of office furniture, you have to make an appointment to visit the central furniture storage depot, trek halfway across campus, and sign several forms pledging your first-born son as security for the priceless 1982-vintage office desk you are taking in trust from the University.
- A new teaching assistant has to undergo a thorough medical evaluation, including a test of hormone functions.
You almost always have only one person to whom you can speak to accomplish any bureaucratic task, you must appear before them in person, and they will rarely offer you more than token assistance in accomplishing it. If your bureaucratic intercessor is diligent and friendly – as many are – you are in luck. If they are lazy, incompetent, or rude, you are in hell.
The fundamental problem is not that a bureacracy exists — any large organization will have to have some administrative bureacracy. The deeper problems are twofold: first, the bureacracy affects virtually every important decision that must be taken. One or two unnecessarily cumbersome procedures aren’t the end of the world, but dozens of them, when combined, begin to force everyone working at the Uni to devote lots of their time to tasks which have nothing to do with the actual mission of the university. The second problem is that there is very little buffer between important decisionmakers and the bureacracy. If a professor wants to buy new books, organize a conference, raise money for a research project, or hire a new staff member, he will have to deal personally with the resulting bureacratic nightmares, although perhaps he may get some help from his part-time secretary or a helpful colleague. It appears to be practically unknown at German universities for there to be entire departments, staffed by competent professionals, to do things such as organize fundraising and conferences, and handle personnel matters.
Trimming this bureaucracy would mean fundamental, merciless reforms — decisive action of the kind that is very hard for Europeans even to imagine,such as eliminating many bureaucratic procedures fundamentally and permanently, denouncing people who aren’t doing their jobs properly, and firing people whose performance does not improve.
In the coming weeks, I’ll post about student life, and about becoming and working as a professor, and then wrap it up with some modest proposals for reform.