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universities in Germany

Reader comment on item: Push Back on the University Front
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Submitted by myth (Germany), Jul 9, 2011 at 08:26

Looking at university education european countries are very different. Let me explain the situation in Germany and how the situation changed over the years. I think the details demonstrate the links between political attitude and acitvity at German universities.

West Germany in Cold War times: Going to university was free of charge and everyone chose their university and subject freely, with the exception of subjects like dental medicine and some others. Universities of equal reputation were spread across the country. Unlike France, there were no top univiversities located in one city with the rest being third-best. A student was very free to individually choose lectures and attend. Most universities sat in the city centers, they were spread across many locations dominating the city, sometimes over centuries. Only universities built in the late sixties were organized in a campus. The eleven german substates ran the universities and offered the professors the status of civil servant for life (German: Beamter).

Higher school education (German: Gymnasium) provided the basic and broad education, not the university. One would leave school after 13 years. As for the universities the substates ran the schools in the same way. The headmasters of the schools were members of one of the three major parties. I have never personally come across any exception. A typical female student would enter university at the age of 19.

The male student was different. National military service demanded another 15 months (until 1988). 24 months civil service was an alternate option. It required a proof of that one would refuse any use of violence in a carefully written application and an interview. In my days there were school teachers availaible to advise the pupils on how to avoid military service. As a result a male student would be of age 21-22, already experienced in living on his own.

Berlin however was different. The occupied status of the city ruled out German military presence. Consequently residents of Berlin avoided military or civil service altogether. For the rest of West-Germany moving to Berlin and joining the university of Berlin had the same effect. This way Berlin, and Berlin university, attracted a high proportion of left-minded students as well as professors and simple residents. The frontier-city of the western world was in fact a leftish place.

Frankfurt in the sixties was the other leftish place in the proximity of US military installations. Frankfurt university played a vital part in the anti-Vietnam-war-movement, the RAF terrorist acitivities in the seventies, and the foundation of the Green Party in Germany. The article about Joschka Fischer, former minister of foreign affairs, illustrates the various links. The movement back then was against the USA as well as against the ex-Nazi-establishment in contemporary Germany political life. Later in the eighties it would shift to nuclear arms and environmental issues. Universities became a stage for large demonstrations.

After reunification: Military service was shortended even more with less demand for soldiers as measured by the total size of the military. More male students entered the universities immediatly after school. There is hardly any political activity visible at German universities. The political issues that are present at universities focus on student matters.

Today: A few months ago military service was abolished. The school education was shortened by one year to 12 years. A few years ago substate governments introduced a fee. Studying at university would cost a student a couple of hundred euros per semester. The student population fell by 20% at some universities. A typical student in Germany is very much concerned about his own survival, less so about politics. Banks only recently offer loans to students in order to complete their studies, but this is an announcement rather than common practice.

Universities changed the traditional open lecture system to a bachelor/master-system. Now the student is taken by the hand and led the way. There is far fewer freedom and time to step on other subjects of interest.

This is were the left-right conflict lies within the universities today: Is it correct to fund students or ask fees ? Do students need freedom or do they need a curriculum that follows business demands ? Is it desirable to organize or is it every man and woman on her or his own ?

The political left mainly manifests itself in the left/environmental beliefs of the teachers at school rather than the universities. There is little political acitivity on the campus, certainly not by funded groups. For there is no broad education, the political questions never reach students of natural sciences, engineering, medicine and the like. The school situation is different. Just one example. Today, religious education covers all religions at school when before i.e. a catholic priest would educate the catholics seperately.

The political right: came into the spotlight by the Guttenberg (CSU party in Bavaria) scandal. Guttenberg, a member of nobility, had to resigns as minister of defence over his doctoral thesis. The thesis was largely a copy-and-paste publication with even the introductory abstract a work of plagiatism. Silvana Koch-Merin (FDP party) resigned from the EU over a similar scandal. Social democrats have not been spotted as copy-and-paste scientists (as far as I know). The scandals revealed that at least the rpolitical-right establishment uses the universities to propel their careers. The universities would give doctor-titles away cheap. They turn a blind eye on the candidate's effort, but keep a good eye on the political and social status of the candidate.

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