There were times, from the late 19th to the early 20th century, when German universities were the envy of the world. The research university was born in Germany. Chicago, Johns Hopkins and Stanford are unthinkable without the German model. Today, though, Germany no longer provides the global standard. Instead, its universities are looking abroad for inspiration, above all to the United States. International rankings of universities, whether Shanghai’s Jiao Tong or the Times Higher Education Supplement, rarely include German institutions among the Top Fifty, and if they do, the schools are near the very bottom.
Other Continental European universities don’t fare much better. Former greats like Parma (founded in 1064), Bologna (1088), Salamanca (1218), Paris (1253), Montpellier (1289) or Grenoble (1339), have lost their luster. Only British universities, especially Oxford (1170) and Cambridge (1209), continue to shine on everybody’s Top Ten list. Gerhard Casper, the German-born former president of Stanford who alphabetically lists Berkeley, Cambridge, Chicago, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Princeton, Stanford and Yale as his Top Nine, adds: “There is top quality in many departments at other universities, but only a small group is excellent all-round. In the twenties, Berlin and Göttingen would have been on any such list, but definitely not Stanford.” Less than a century later, the reverse is true. Alison Richard, the former provost of Yale and current vice chancellor of Cambridge University, concurs. Though not a fan of rankings, she freely admits that all such lists pretty much look like Casper’s: “It is not surprising that it’s always the same institutions that show up on anybody’s Top Ten. I bet that even people who never consult such lists would come up with a similar ranking.”
Today, it is American universities über alles: eight of them in the top ten, 17 in the top twenty and 38 in the top fifty of the world. Britain boasts four universities among the top thirty. In the top fifty, ETH (Swiss Institute of Technology) makes 24th place, France’s Université de Paris VI takes 42nd, University of Copenhagen (Denmark) 45th, University of Utrecht (Holland) 47th and Sweden’s Karolinska 51st place. The first two German universities, Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian (LMU) and Munich’s Technical University (TUM), appear in 55th and 57th place. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States dominates the field in higher education.
Where has the glory of Europe gone? The literal answer is: overseas, while the going was still good. The exodus of the best and the brightest—overwhelmingly Jewish—began in Germany in 1933 and continued after 1939 elsewhere in Europe, wherever the Wehrmacht conquered. Another critical date is 1968. In the wake of the European student revolt, university education expanded exponentially, typically from 7–10 percent of an age-cohort to 30 percent or more. This was the dawn of open admission and free tuition, but without an explosion of government funding to complement it. A 2006 report by the Centre for European Reform in London, The Future of European Universities, points out that the United States invests 2.6 percent of GDP in higher education, compared with 1.2 percent in Europe (and 1.1 in Japan).
The year 1968 also spelled the end of the (Wilhelm von) Humboldtian University, named after the great 19th-century reformer and father of the modern research university, whose key idea was the “fusion of research and teaching.” Today, his spirit lives on in Harvard, Stanford et al. through a kind of transoceanic migration of souls. How does this “fusion”, or as he put it, “teaching from research”, actually work? In top American universities even a freshman can engage in serious (supervised) research, rather than just run through a core curriculum. This means, says Casper, “that the relationship between student and professor is a dialectical one: The student has to offer as much to the professor as the professor to the student.” This is precisely what Humboldt dreamed and wrote about.
This fusion no longer exists in Europe. Take Germany, where 1968 marked yet another exodus, a kind of internal emigration away from universities. In response to student upheavals, ideological battles and the “massification” of education, the best and most productive minds moved from the campus to state-funded research institutions. Or take some recent German Nobel laureates. The physicist Peter Grünberg was rewarded for his work at the Research Center Jülich. The chemist Gerhard Ertl was the director of the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin. Look for more laureates, and you’ll find them even in IBM or Bell Laboratories, at MIT or in the fabled Max Planck Institutes that dot the country. And what nice places they are: very well-equipped and without any bothersome or under-qualified students to trouble the brilliant professors. Only Theodor Hänsch, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physics, was director of a Max Planck Institute and a full professor at the Technical University in Munich simultaneously.
Of course, the United States has its NIH, its Howard Hughes Medical Institute, its Lawrence Livermore. But the bulk of cutting-edge work takes place in the great research universities, which are the true heirs of Humboldt. This is also where the bulk of Federal education and research money goes. But in Germany, the system is reversed. The world-class research outfits are generously funded by Berlin, while the universities, obeying “states rights” in matters of culture and education, are financed by the cash-strapped Länder. The pattern is comparable among the large Continental states like France, Italy and Spain.
So whereas the “best and the brightest” from Europe after 1933 were extruded—”Hitler’s Gift” to America and Britain, as the title of a book by Jean Medavar and David Pyke has it—after 1968 the “best and the brightest” were shunted aside in favor of the faux-egalitarianism of European-style mass education. Until 1968, the German university was still fairly elitist and class-stratified. Only 7 to 10 percent of any given age group went from the gymnasium (or grammar school) to the university. After 1968, tuition went down to zero, and generous subsidies for registered students (health insurance, meals and public transportation) were instituted. If admission was not completely open, say, in the humanities and social sciences, slots were parceled out by a Soviet-style national bureaucracy that weighed not only grade-point averages, but also “social criteria” (like how long a would-be student of oversubscribed subjects had been on the waiting list). Quality control like exams came only at the very end, and the end could be literally endless; there was no effective limit to a student’s sojourn on the campus. Where Herr Professor had once lorded over a small group of hand-picked disciples, “seminars” with literally hundreds of students now held sway.
The intention, in Germany as elsewhere in Europe, was noble: to break the yoke of elitism in favor of universally accessible higher education. The result was academic deregulation without academic socialization to what it means to be a serious, dedicated student or teacher. The old university was simply blown up like a huge balloon, privileging quantity over quality. To insist on effort and excellence was branded as conservative, even reactionary. After the fad with sit-ins and go-ins had waned in the second half of the 1970s, students still argued more about smoking bans in seminars than they did about Plato or Marlowe. There were no credit points and no transcripts, meaning that, especially in the “soft” disciplines, studying could turn into a mere lifestyle choice. “Let’s take that final examination this or next year, or even start over at another university”: These became valid options. Hence German graduates became the oldest in all the OECD countries, with an average age of 28 to 29.
Such a situation could not last. The pendulum began to swing back in the 1990s, and people began to ask: “How did our university system, once the model for the rest of the world, become so underfinanced and overpopulated?” Initially, the counteroffensive came guerrilla-style. Professors who no longer wanted to compromise their standards scheduled their seminars at eight o’clock in the morning or at five o’clock p.m. on Fridays to ensure that only highly motivated students would show up. In other words, they acted as their own informal “admissions committees.” But that could not dent the real problem: open admissions. Any high school student with an Abitur (the German equivalent of a high school diploma with lots of advanced placement courses) has a constitutional right to a university education. The “numerus clausus”—limits to admission—operates in subjects like medicine, chemistry or pharmacy, where teaching depends on limited hospital slots and costly lab space. Philosophy, mathematics or English literature knew no such scarcities. Anybody could show up, and dropout rates subsequently skyrocketed to 65–90 percent. American university deans, who worry endlessly about retention and attrition, would go bonkers over similarly high dropout rates in the humanities. But then, tertiary education in the United States believes in “diversity by design”, spanning a spectrum from Saddleback College to Columbia. This is a very different kind of egalitarianism than what rules in Germany and Continental Europe. In Europe, egalitarianism means that everybody goes to the “same” university—aside from the polytechnics or Fachhochschulen (advanced technical colleges). These universities don’t distinguish between undergraduate and post-graduate education, or between professional and scholarly studies. It’s chop suey in one big pot, and the pots don’t compete for the best ingredients (students and teachers), as they do in the United States and in Britain. In America, by contrast, equality of access goes hand in hand with diversity of excellence. As in Germany or France, everybody gets in, but if you don’t make it into Berkeley, you go to San Diego. Or if not there, then to San Jose. Or to a community college where, if you shine, you can move up—all the way to Stanford. there are nearly 3,000 wildly disparate institutions in the United States, and universal access to this system doesn’t crowd out academic excellence, as it does in Continental Europe.
In the mid-1990s, the tide began to turn in Germany as well as in the European Union. “Harvard and Stanford” became the mantra. But these two are private and very rich, and Europe cannot even begin to duplicate them with its stingy state financing, or without digging into parents’ pocketbooks. Education in Europe essentially remains a free gift handed out by the state. More recently, a few private schools have been founded, most of them second-tier, which cater to a small number of well-to-do kids whose parents do not want them to waste time at a public university. There is one excellent private law school, Bucerius Law in Hamburg (founded in 2001) and the private International University in Bremen, which had to be saved from bankruptcy by Swiss billionaire Klaus J. Jacobs with an infusion of €200 million. This was at the time the largest gift ever received by a German university. In return, Jacobs got his name on the door of what is now “Jacobs International University.” But that €200 million will run out soon.
And the rest? Only in 2007 did some German states begin to ask their students for a little help to defray costs: €1,000 (or about $1,390, depending on the exchange rate per year). Now, one year later, a counterattack by leftist parties and enraged students is sweeping the country with the message, “Don’t mess with the middle class.” Four-fifths of the German student population are middle-class or higher, the highest proportion among the OECD countries. The state must provide, runs the mantra, but the state doesn’t. Classes remain overcrowded, and the student-teacher ratio remains staggeringly high (in law or economics, 31 to 1, and in the humanities, 25 to one).
Because the state provides, Europeans are not used to giving, either as students or graduates. And why should alumni identify with their old school? Many universities have nothing resembling an American university campus, where students study, live, eat and play. Big-city universities like Hamburg are more like shopping centers. Almost 40,000 students come in from all over town. They listen to a lecture, grab a bite in the subsidized cafeteria and leave. There are no varsity sports teams to root for, and nothing like the Yale Rep theater or the Stanford Daily newspaper. And forget about a commencement ceremony; you can pick up your diploma at the department office or have it mailed to you. With no social life or rituals, European universities are not communities, and alumni aren’t inclined to give to the equivalent of a social vending machine.
It took an American re-import like Alison Richard to start a fundraising campaign for Cambridge University. In 2005 she kicked off a £1 billion drive (about $1.26 billion) for the 800th birthday of her university. “We are not used to giving, but we also never had a habit of asking”, she comments dryly. Three years before the drive ends over £800 million has already been collected. Oxford has followed its rival in the begging game.
Germany has taken a different road toward funding of higher quality in research. The German government poured €1.9 billion ($2.6 billion) into its “Excellence Initiative.” Wow! the country exclaimed. But it is $2.6 billion over five years. And compare this to Stanford’s current $4.3 billion five-year fundraising drive just for a single university. Here is another noteworthy figure: In 2005, before the precipitous rise of the euro, Stanford spent $2.5 billion on its 15,000 students, which was a bit more than the State of Bavaria devoted to all of its universities, with ten times as many students. And Bavaria is home of some of the best universities in Germany, two of them, Munich universities LMU and TUM, being winners in the Excellence Initiative.
A century ago, Germany was the model for America. Since World War II, it has been the other way around, for Germany as well as Europe. But this may be changing. In 1999 the European Union introduced the “Bologna Process.” Its three pillars are: Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees based on credit points where diplomas and state examinations taken at will once held sway; quality controls like regular testing; and mutual recognition of credits earned in all member countries. The Bologna Process, to be completed in 2010, has already had one intended effect: Students graduate in much less time. Drop-out rates, however, seem unchanged beyond the humanities.
Germany’s “Excellence Initiative”, though the funding pales by American standards, is also bearing fruit. It has introduced, in small measures, three alien concepts into the German academic market: competition, selectivity, and diversity. Those universities that crave the “excellence” label must scramble to convince a body of international scholars that they are up to snuff, and thus deserving of federal funds. This initiative is, with the exception of one fledgling institution in Austria, a German thing. The French have always had their Hautes Écoles and the British their excellent research at their elite universities, and hence had no need to follow the German example.
One such “excellent” university is Karlsruhe’s Fredericiana. What Hewlett-Packard is to Stanford, the Hector Foundation is to Karlsruhe. Hans-Werner Hector was one of the founders of Germany’s giant software company SAP (Systems Applications and Products in Data Processing). His foundation handed in 2008 more than €200 million to what is now known as “KIT”, the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Already, student applications have increased by 30 percent. Doctoral students will now work in the new graduate school. Even better, KIT will reverse the exodus of high-level research by integrating two world-class research centers devoted to basic and applied science (Karlsruhe and Jülich). In other words, Humboldt and his fusion of teaching and research is back in Germany—at least at KIT.
But the way back to Humboldt is arduous, because everybody else has adopted the model, too. Take the 2007 Starting Grant competition organized by the European Research Council (ERC). Germany, the largest European country, with its 82 million people, managed to snag only 33 grants, while tiny Israel (seven million) got 24 and Holland (16 million) 44. Britain (60 million) ran away with 78 grants. In the university rankings, the variation is just as pronounced. Within Europe, Britain and Switzerland are on top; Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands make up the second tier; France and Germany are third tier; and the east European universities are “also rans.”
Yet Europe is still a long way from tapping into its fabulous capacity to renew its greatness, be it from the public coffer or from private pockets; hence the United States spends more than twice as much (as a fraction of GDP) on higher education than does Europe. Add to that too little autonomy and too much bureaucracy. Above all, Continental Europe hasn’t even begun to access what is one of America’s greatest educational resources: foreign students. In Germany, one-half of foreign students drop out and leave. As for the natives, it is only a “half-elite”, as Germany’s highbrow weekly Die Zeit put it: “Nine universities may be labeled ‘excellent’—for their research, but the general learning situation is as bad as everywhere else.”
The overall trend, however, is clear: Europe’s universities are slowly but surely restructuring in favor of quality control, competition and selectivity. Thus the myth that all students and all universities are equal is dying a quiet death. May it rest in peace.