Stanford tuition fees are high because of the demand

economy : German university system: "Tuition fees are necessary"

Hans N. Weiler is a political scientist and has taught at the renowned Stanford University in California / USA since 1965. He was involved in the founding and development of the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) and headed the university as rector from 1993 to 1999. The city made him an honorary citizen last year. He is also chairman of the university development commission of the state of Saxony.

Mr. Weiler, the economic organization OECD gives the German higher education system bad marks. Only 28 percent of German high school graduates start studying, in Finland it is 70 percent. At the same time it is said everywhere that education is the most important factor for the future. How does that fit together?

It does not fit. It has been clear for a long time that we need more university graduates in Germany. But nothing is happening to get closer to this goal. In an international comparison, German universities are getting worse and worse because they are underfunded, overcrowded and overregulated.

Why do we need more university graduates? Are the conventional forms of vocational training no longer sufficient?

No. On the one hand, scientifically trained workers are becoming more important in traditional professions. On the other hand, there are more innovative service and production areas that cannot do without scientific qualifications, such as information technology or biotechnologies. However, the universities cannot meet this demand.

Why do almost two thirds of German high school graduates avoid universities - are Germans lazy?

In Germany it is still the exception rather than the rule to study. In the US it is much more natural to go to university after school and get as far as you can on the ladder of education. When it comes to education, Americans also think more in terms of economic categories and ask themselves which investment in life brings the highest return. This is where a degree usually does best. In Germany, on the other hand, it is still considered unfair to think of education as an investment.

The rumor persists that there is still a glut of academics - although experts find exactly the opposite. Where does it come from?

I like to know it, too. From time to time, more people are trained than the labor market needs, but unemployment is much lower among graduates than non-graduates.

Does the economy have to put more pressure on?

Yes, more pressure, but also more support. So far, the economy has not articulated its needs clearly and aggressively enough, making it difficult for universities to better adapt their courses to the needs and changes in the world of work. Training for the labor markets of tomorrow must no longer follow a specific, narrow job description as closely as before, but must concentrate on learning to teach and being able to understand complex, interdisciplinary relationships.

What would have to happen for the German higher education system to become better?

Above all, we need more competition in order to improve quality: more competition for good students, for good scientists, for research funding. There is a lack of performance incentives and the dynamism of supply and demand at German universities. The universities should be able to choose the university students and the students. Instead, there is an authority in Dortmund, the ZVS, which distributes the study places in subjects that are in high demand - this ruins supply and demand, distorts competition and should be abolished.

Is education a commodity that can be sold in a market?

No. Education should be a branded product that has to prove itself in the market of those who are interested in training, i.e. applicants, and those interested in the outcome of training, i.e. employers.

In federal Germany, education is a matter of the state, and a wide range of universities is considered to be prestigious. Are federalism and competition compatible?

The country structure is of course an obstacle, but it also has its advantages, especially in terms of diversity and competition. In the United States, public university competition works both within and across states. Achievement is rewarded more there, especially among scientists, but also among students. In Germany there are first tentative approaches to this, such as in the plans for a performance-related salary for university teachers.

If the competition works, small, financially weak universities could no longer afford the coveted and expensive professors. The students stayed away and the universities bled to death. Do you want that?

If you want competition, you also have to accept that there are losers. In higher education, there must be no guarantee of the existence of inferior quality. But small universities are not disadvantaged per se - even today, universities of applied sciences, for example, often have a competitive advantage over universities, and their graduates are more sought-after on the job market. Small universities have a good chance of developing profiles that give them a distinctive role in research and teaching.

For our education system this would be a paradigm shift - achievement and inequality instead of equality of supply in all places.

Yes, but it is necessary if Germany does not want to lose touch internationally. It is a fiction that all German universities are equally good, but it still determines official university policy. A differentiated university system, in which not every university does everything, but what it does particularly well, ensures both competitiveness and an optimal range of courses for students in the long term.

Do students also have to pay for the education product if there is competition?

Naturally. Tuition fees are necessary to create an effective dynamic of supply and demand. They are also more socially fair. Today, citizens who do not study subsidize the education of students and later higher earners with their taxes. It would be fairer to ask the students to pay and to share in the costs of their long-term very lucrative studies.

Then only the rich can pay for their children to study.

It's a fairy tale. This is not a problem with a sensible system of student finance. In Stanford, where I teach, it works too, with significantly higher tuition fees than in Germany. Those who pass the entrance exam but cannot afford to study receive a scholarship, the amount of which is based on the income of their parents.

However, there is no such system of scholarships and student finance in Germany, and it cannot be conjured up overnight.

There is no reason not to try. If Education Minister Edelgard Bulmahn (SPD) had prevailed with her student loan reform, we would have come closer to such a system. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) has whistled back.

Opponents of tuition fees argue that there is a risk that universities will lower their performance requirements in order to increase their student numbers if education costs something.

This can easily be prevented with sensible quality control and performance assessment, and there are now excellent approaches to this in Germany - such as in the quality assessments of the Center for University Development (CHE), which form a kind of Uni-TÜV. Because you cannot expect anyone to study at a university for years and ultimately not find a job due to poor training.

Would an at least partial privatization of the universities also be a solution?

A fully privatized system is not a solution. There are now private universities in Germany that choose one or two popular subjects, charge hefty tuition fees and then also collect subsidies from the economy and the state. Compared to public universities, this is a distortion of competition.

If Germany wanted to introduce more market into its higher education system - could the federal government stipulate this by law, or could Bavaria simply rush ahead?

If Bavaria were to single-handedly introduce tuition fees, the students would run away. Such a reform will not work without a consensus among the countries. Nevertheless, it will not work without a strong commitment from the federal government; this is shown by the reform of the salaries and service law of professors initiated by the federal government.

Who is blocking such a reform on the part of the federal states? Those with a poorer college landscape?

Not necessarily. It is now politically en vogue to stand up for modern universities and more competition, the science ministers and rectors are more open-minded than before. Among the professors, however, many still oppose the loss of assets.

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