Ulrike K. and the Chaos of Education Policy: Thousands of High School Graduates Will Never Have a Chance to Go to College
Ulrike K. passed her Abitur* this year with a 1.7 grade point average.** She missed her chance for a slot in the subject of medicine by 0.1 points. She owes her bad luck to the pedagogical advice of her teachers. The seventeen-year-old skipped a grade twice.
In the Düsseldorf Ministry of Science and Education, the operators of the “university placement guillotine,” the Central Office for University Admissions (ZVS) in Dortmund, were wondering whether Ulrike could be considered a “social hardship case.” The well-meaning decisions of her teachers practically robbed the unusually gifted schoolgirl of her chance to attain an even better grade point average two years later. But because the state treaty [Staatsvertrag] on university admission does not provide for cases like hers, the jurists did not accept this reasoning. Visibly moved and upset, Undersecretary Herbert Schnoor (SPD) said, “This is how a country treats its highly gifted.”
For Ulrike, admission to a university program in medicine is now beyond reach. The rush on the available slots is so great that the necessary grade point average is dropping ever lower: 1.5, 1.4 . . . 1.0. Those who are rejected wind up on the so-called wait list. The list is so long that anyone with a triple-digit place number next year would only get a slot in ten years’ time. But the state treaty does not allow for ten-year waiting periods, because an applicant’s Abitur certificate cannot be more than eight years old. “For economic, human, and social reasons, there is no other possible way,” says Schnoor.
The state treaty, which the ministers of education of the federal states quickly cobbled together in 1972 in order to show the federal government how easily such problems could be solved, is already running on empty. The more the ZVS in Dortmund centrally regulates admission to various fields of study at all universities, technical colleges, and polytechnics, the more it is becoming the “control center for the national education system” (Schnoor). Going there “is like going to the scaffold” (Minister of Science and Education Johannes Rau).
Growing numbers of young people who, after arduous years [of schooling], finally have a piece of paper in their in hand that entitles them to admission to an institution of higher education, are becoming disappointed when they realize that their Abitur, or an equivalent diploma, gives them an entitlement that they can never take advantage of. Neither the federal states nor the politicians responsible for educational matters are considering expanding or overcrowding the universities, so that everyone can be admitted. All over the country, there are reductions, cutbacks, curtailments. And no matter what procedure is used to regulate university admission, the number of available slots will not increase in the coming years. Thousands of entitled high school graduates will never have a chance to enter the university system.
“The effects on the schools, reaching deep into the families of the individual youths, on society, and on the employment system are catastrophic,” Schnoor warned insistently. Not only he, but also his colleagues from most other federal states and all other experts – clear across party lines – know what kind of disappointments and political quarrels are on the horizon if the transition from school to institutions of higher learning, and the relationship between school and institutions of higher learning are not settled as quickly as possible. But almost all ministers of education (excerpt for the Bavarian one) know that a new version of the state treaty, which the majority of the eleven states would have to approve, “simply isn’t feasible politically” (Johannes Rau).
*Abitur: college entrance qualification exam taken at the end of secondary school [Gymnasium] – trans.
**The German grading system ranges from 1 to 6, with 1 being the best grade and 6 being a failing grade – trans.