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Images - Reforming Schools and Universities

Aside from the economy, another area in which reform proved excruciatingly difficult was education and research. After unification, the first challenge was to merge the dictatorial (but in some respects innovative) East German education system with its democratic (but more traditional) Western counterpart. Unfortunately, instead of preserving some sound and proven GDR practices (e.g., small group tutorials), the unification process did away with the entire East German system and inserted the new federal states into a Western structure that had already become somewhat outmoded. Although many East German teachers had chafed under the ideological control of the SED, they, too, found the transition unsettling, not least because it brought unexpected problems along with new opportunities. Scholars who yearned to regain a modicum of academic freedom and institutional autonomy were faced with political screenings, competence evaluations, and curricular restructuring. All of this was imposed from the outside and took the reform process out of their hands. Since the East German Academy of Science, with its approximately 24,000 researchers, did not fit into the education and research landscape of the FRG, it had to be dissolved. Individual East German institutes were reorganized, given more focused mandates, and incorporated into the appropriate Western research organization. Since the social sciences were considered especially ideologically tainted, many scholars in the field lost their jobs, and this led to the formation of a “second academic culture.”

When the transformation of East German schools and universities was complete, the reform discussion reemerged, only to face high hurdles. Germany’s federal structure gives the individual federal states [Länder] extensive rights in the realm of education, and the states are extremely protective of these rights. At the same time, however, the federal states often depend upon the federal government for supplemental funding. Seeking to protect their own clienteles, interest groups such as the teachers’ union [Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft or GEW], the association of secondary-school teachers [Philologenverband], and the association of university professors [Hochschulverband] tended to defend the status quo. One of the first to criticize the immobility of the system was Federal President Roman Herzog, who wanted education to become more modern, international, and competitive. Another important voice in the reform debate was the Center for Higher Education Development, which wanted universities to be given more administrative and budgetary autonomy. But the ideologization of education (one legacy of the 1968 movement) pitted liberal permissiveness against conservative discipline, making it difficult to reach a consensus.

Therefore, it took external forces to break the deadlock. In 2000, German high school students performed poorly on the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which measured the reading, math, and science skills of fifteen-year-old students in thirty-one OECD countries. German school children ranked close to the bottom in reading and achieved only middling scores in math. After the test results were announced in late 2001, it became clear that the German school system had fallen behind and that reforms were necessary. The political right blamed German students’ poor scores on the move away from traditional pedagogical practices. The right pointed out, for instance, that students in in the Southwestern German states, where traditional practices were still common, had outperformed their peers in other parts of Germany. The left, on the other hand, blamed the structure of the German school system, namely its segmentation into Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. The left also viewed half-day schooling as problematic. Representing progressive educators, Federal Minister of Education and Research Edelgard Bulmahn therefore proposed to introduce all-day schooling. More conservative critics deplored the coddling of small children, viewing it as a waste of their most critical years of development; they advocated the expansion of early childhood education, specifically the introduction of compulsory kindergarten. Additional problems came to the fore when teachers at the Rütli School in Berlin issued a cry for help and thereby highlighted the problems of the mostly immigrant students in their school.

On the university level, the so-called “Bologna process” compelled the federal states to act. On June 19, 1999, representatives of twenty-nine countries met in Bologna and formulated a goal – to create a common European space for higher education by 2010. The harmonization of European educational structures and processes was to ensure, among other things, compatibility, mobility, and quality. As a result of the “Bologna process,” the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Federal States [Kultusministerkonferenz] decided to introduce B.A. and M.A. degrees at German universities, thereby creating six- to eight-semester courses of study that ended in the conferral of a B.A. The idea was that the B.A. would suffice for the majority of students. Those who wanted more advanced credentials could stay on for an additional two to four semesters and leave with an M.A. The chaotic conversion of curricula and the proliferation of tests under the new system angered students so much that they organized a nationwide strike to compel politicians and faculty members to "reform the reform."

It was the second time in recent years that students had taken to the streets. The introduction of modest tuition fees (500 Euros per semester) in some federal states also angered the student body, which was accustomed to free education. Another controversial reform was the introduction of a new entry-level rank for faculty – the junior professorship. The change meant that it was possible to attain a professorial post (of some sort at least) without completing the customary – and cumbersome – second dissertation known as the Habilitation. The “competition for excellence” [Exzellenzwettbewerb] was another initiative that aimed to put German universities back on top of the international rankings. The competition awarded special federal funding to innovative graduate schools, promising research groups, and a small number of leading universities.

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