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The 1960s proved to be a decade of change for both German states in the field of education policy. In the Federal Republic, a debate on the necessity and content of educational reform emerged in the early 1960s and continues to this very day. When compared with other Western European countries, the Federal Republic lagged behind in its percentage of high school and university graduates, and teachers among the population as a whole. It was faced with the necessity of expanding its system of universities and technical colleges in order to meet new economic challenges and to ensure equal opportunities for all. Already low tuition fees were eliminated, new universities were founded, and student numbers increased exponentially. In a short time, these developments necessitated the central (national) allocation of university slots for particularly popular fields of study. It proved extremely difficult to plan for demand and restraints imposed by the tight fiscal situation of the federal states and false prognoses about the number of entering students led to tremendous strains on the higher education system. Reforms in other areas of higher education were also difficult to push through, not only because they targeted traditional privileges and structures, but also because many demands were radicalized by student revolts. For example, reformers wanted to rein in the power of full professors by granting other university groups more rights, but these goals met with only limited success.

In his inaugural address, Chancellor Willy Brandt declared education a top priority for his administration; from that point on, the responsibilities of the former Ministry of Science would also include education. Since West Germany’s federal system gives federal states jurisdiction over education, this move triggered endless battles over authority. After much hesitation, a number of educational policy measures were eventually accepted as the joint responsibility of both the federal and state governments. That the struggle over jurisdiction was in part ideologically motivated is shown in the debates over the introduction of comprehensive schools [Gesamtschulen]. The federal government advocated such schools but met with opposition primarily from those federal states governed by the Christian Democrats and their sister party, the Christian Social Union. Possible new courses of action were discussed at length, but, due to numerous hurdles, the reforms failed to meet expectations. Hence, the basic structure of the tripartite school system remained unchanged. It consisted of the primary school [Volksschule], which was upgraded to a general secondary school [Hauptschule]; an intermediate school [Realschule], which awarded an intermediate school-leaving certificate [Mittlere Reife]; and the college-preparatory high school [Gymnasium], with its three branches of study: classical languages, modern languages, and natural sciences.

Reforms in the East were much more radical by comparison. The restructuring process initiated in the 1950s was largely complete by the 1960s. The state augmented its control in all areas of education, and intensified ideological indoctrination. The law passed to create a unified socialist educational system provided the legal foundation for ten-year polytechnic schools for all students but could not be fully implemented until the 1970s. The Third University Reform (1967-1972) abolished the traditional structure of German universities, not only replacing faculties with “sections,” but also centralizing universities and technical schools and making them more specialized. In addition, new regulations were passed for doctoral and postdoctoral [Habilitation] programs. Organizational reform went hand in hand with the intensified politicization of the education and science sectors. The East German leadership could rightly point to increased educational opportunities for all citizens. This broadening of educational opportunities performed an important legitimizing function for the regime; but it was also associated with efforts to forge “socialist personalities.” From the 1970s on, education in the GDR also included obligatory military training and instruction.

In both German states, the reform of education policy was shaped by the imperatives of economic challenges, international (and intra-German) competition, a belief (at least temporary) in the effectiveness of planning, and by political priorities. The centralized educational policy of the SED, which tolerated no opposition, exhibited itself in the systematic control of student numbers and the institution of a rigid education system that allowed students fewer choices. By comparison, the pluralist educational policy of the West acted as both a catalyst for and a brake on reform. In the mid-1970s, the flurry of activities in educational policy gave way to a certain weariness that resulted in a logjam of reforms in the 1980s. It took another decade until overdue reforms were finally approached with greater resolve.

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