Bavarian reforms spell shift towards US system in Germany

Championed by one of the frontrunners to replace Angela Merkel, a new law could bring tuition fees, a focus on industry and greater institutional inequality

October 27, 2020
Bavarian Governor Markus Soeder
Source: Getty

Advocates of a new Bavarian law that could usher in more US-style stratification of universities and allow institutions to charge international students fees hope that the rest of Germany will soon follow suit.

The changes are being personally championed by Markus Söder, Bavaria’s conservative state premier and one of the front-runners to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor. He has urged rectors to embrace “more freedom” and strengthen the “innovation potential” of universities.

Wolfgang Herrmann, former president of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and one of the key players pushing for the new law, hoped that the state would become a “role model” for the rest of Germany. “If Bavaria gets a modern university law, I’m sure other states will come along,” he said.

The reforms in Bavaria, Germany’s second richest state and home to industrial titans including BMW, Siemens and Audi, would mark a clear break with Germany’s existing higher education system.

Despite efforts to create an “elite” tier of “excellent” institutions in Germany, there are still not the sharp hierarchies of prestige – and fierce competition for places – present in the US and UK. Institutions are overwhelmingly funded by the state, and academic freedom of teaching and research is guaranteed by the constitution.

Under the changes, universities would be free to adopt a legal form with more independence from the state, and rearrange their internal organisation.

They would remain state funded, but budgets would come with more targets attached. The “transfer” of knowledge to the wider economy and society would be defined as one of their key missions, alongside teaching and research.

In practice, the changes would allow universities flexibility to tempt scholars from overseas with big salaries, and take on building projects themselves, said Professor Herrmann, who led TUM for 25 years before stepping down last year. “It’s inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit,” he said of the new law.

Professor Herrmann saw it as pushing Bavaria towards a system of stratified universities, like in the US or the UK, with tougher competition for entry to top universities. “I see the beneficial effects of competition,” he said.

Under the law, Bavarian universities would also be allowed to charge non-European Union students, another major policy departure in a country where fees are almost non-existent and politically controversial.

“This money can be taken for construction projects or financing of start-ups or other activities, which they could not do before,” explained Tobias Plessing, chairman of the board at the Association of Lecturers at Bavarian Universities of Applied Sciences.

The proposed changes, however, have provoked a backlash from some politicians and academics. Nicole Gohlke, an MP from the left-wing party Die Linke, tweeted that the reforms would “open the door” of universities to corporations.

Max-Emanuel Geis, a law professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, warned that the reform could face challenges over its potential conflict with Germany’s legal protection of research and academic teaching.

“This new bill will strengthen the university management and weaken the rights of academics, especially of those who represent subjects that aren’t suitable for [economic] added value. Take the ancient historian, the hieroglyph researcher or the dogmatics theologian: they all can be disadvantaged in terms of distribution of resources or of receiving salary allowances,” Professor Geis said.

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Reader's comments (4)

Ugh, Germans should be proud of their world-leading academic system and avoid the marketisation of higher education that is so prevalent in the UK at all costs. Marketisation kills educational standards and therefore, in the long run, science.
Germany has a university system that has stood the test of time and produced excellent results as can be seen by its economic and wider academic success (even though universities are on the while less well known globally than in the US and the two/few ‘famous’ ones in the UK) . The current proposal won’t achieve anything of value and only massages the egos of a few. Perhaps the bigger problem was the expansion of universities into smaller cities and towns to the detriment of the important apprenticeships and the possible concomitant dilution of academic quality.
"Despite efforts to create an “elite” tier of “excellent” institutions in Germany, there are still not the sharp hierarchies of prestige – and fierce competition for places – present in the US and UK. Institutions are overwhelmingly funded by the state, and academic freedom of teaching and research is guaranteed by the constitution." And this is a bad thing because? [Well, I am not surprised that the journos of this rag are all for HE hierarchies and competition for places (i.e. student fees), though. They are the basis for the meaningless rankings, awards and summits that they have to peddle for their income.] Also, who has told you that there is no competition in German HE? Ever heard of the Numerus Clausus and "Zugangsbeschraenkungen"? It is just a different sort, non-market based competition for places. The competition is not primarily between universities - although every German knows the difference between Heidelberg and Buxdehude ;) - but between students based on aptitude? That is what a meritocracy used to and should be all about; not the Anglo version of everyone who can pay gets a shot however dim (or "was bei Drei nicht auf den Baeumen ist wird angenommen so lange der Preis stimmt"). Please, Bavaria (Germany) do not follow the Anglo HE system, which is the dead-end street of marketisation and financialisation! Why are German's (or better their politicians) so keen on repeating the mistakes already made by others (i.e. the US)? As usual, German politicians are behind the curve when it comes to HE but not on the way they think. It is high time these neoliberal diciples of the market fetish are flushed out for good.
Germany attempted to levy fees on students in the early 2000s and it wasn't done uniformly. 7 of the 16 states had such fees and they proved unpopular and later abolished in 2014. I can't imagine that the paradigm has shifted so much that these fees would be welcomed only a few years after abolition