“Educational Republic of Germany” Of Economizing and Redistribution

In a lecture at the University of Cologne; Photo: © dpa
In a lecture at the University of Cologne | Photo (detail): © dpa

In Greece, schools and universities are up to their necks in water, and in Portugal too. In Spain, school children, teachers and university students are protesting against massive cuts in education. And what about Germany?

The economic crisis has ripped wounds in the field of education all across Europe. But Germany appears not to have joined the trend. While youth unemployment in Europe has reached a record level of 22.1 percent, German employers are complaining about shortages of skilled workers. The Federal Ministry for Education and Research sees the reason for this low unemployment in investment in education. Is there really something to the sobriquet “Educational Republic of Germany”?

The budget is growing

The fact is that there have been no cuts. Not, at least, at the federal level. In 2012, education and research has even been given a record budget. “We are investing in the future of our country”, says the Minister of Education and Research Schavan, explaining the windfall. Education and research are being strengthened so as to ensure “sustainable growth”. In numbers this means that the budget of the Ministry for Education has been increased this year by eleven percent over last year’s budget, to 12.9 billion euros. That sounds like a lot of money. Where are the billions going?

Promoting excellence

The money goes mainly to the initiatives of the Higher Education Pact 2020 and the Pact for Research and Innovation. The Higher Education Pact was launched in order to help universities shoulder the extra load of incoming students brought about by the abolition of the draft and the double number of high-school graduates. In 2012 the federal states will receive about 1.1 billion euros and, by 2015, another five billion for up to 335,000 new university places. As part of the Quality Pact for Teaching, by 2020 two billion euros will have gone to universities for the improvement of study conditions. In addition, grants for higher education, scholarships for gifted students and “Germany scholarships” will be expanded. University research will be supported by funds from the Excellence Initiative and the Higher Education Pact.

The Minister of Education is satisfied with these programs. Germany has one of the best-performing research systems in the world; in the awarding of patents it plays in the same league as the United States and Japan. Why then do students also take to the streets in Germany, why are university departments shut, why is the plaster from the ceilings of lecture halls crumbling? Why are there 60,000 school dropouts and 7.5 million illiterate if education has been given so much attention in the “Educational Republic”? The fact is that, though the budget is being increased, the additional money is going mainly to the promotion of excellence. Universities without excellence projects see little of the millions. And then there is also another peculiarity of the German educational system.

State autonomy in education

In Germany, education falls within the competence of the states. When the Federal Ministry of Education increases its budget, this does not mean that Education Ministries of the various states do the same. Among the sixteen federal states, there are significant differences, both in expenditure and levels of education. Overall, the development has been positive, as the 2011 Education Monitor shows. Thus there has been progress throughout Germany in gaining qualifications for higher education. Of high-school graduates, 17.6 percent received qualifications to attend university. In 2000, it was still only 11.3 percent of a graduating class. There have also been improvements in all-day care for elementary school pupils and in the pupil-teacher ratio. In 2000 there were still about 20 children to one elementary school teacher; today the ratio is significantly lower. Nevertheless, differences in educational levels among the states remain a problem. The best educational locations are Saxony, Thuringia and Baden-Württemberg; Berlin comes at the bottom of the list.

Reforms and mini-reforms

The situation in the Educational Republic is muddled. Windfalls of billions here, empty coffers there. The government is therefore considering a reform. Hitherto the federal government and the states have not been permitted to work together on a permanent basis on issues of education. So says the German Basic Law. Under this regulation, strapped states that have difficulties in maintaining schools and universities are particularly disadvantaged. They need a guaranteed basic funding. The engagement of the federal government is allowed only in exceptional cases and is limited in its duration, as, for instance, in the Excellence Initiatives. When the Initiative 2017 expires, the prestigious projects together with their positions also come to an end. Unless, that is, the states take over the financing.

There must therefore be a redistribution of funds – if not, things look bad. If the restriction on federal and state collaboration is dropped, then a permanent co-financing would become possible. This, however, is initially envisaged only for research, not for schools, which just as much need money from Berlin. The present proposal, warn critics, is good for research, but not for education. It is still unclear whether there will be an amendment of the Basic Law and what it would look like. The states disagree. Schleswig-Holstein would like federal aid for schools, and Hamburg favors financial help for the entire education sector. For other states, such as Baden-Württemberg, this sounds too much like a financial equalization scheme. The education issue remains caught in a tension between economizing and redistribution.