Universities in Germany are expecting an enormous increase in first-year students next semester. This is due not only to studying becoming more popular in recent years, but also to double cohorts of higher secondary school-leavers and the country ending conscription.
The German states introduced shorter secondary school education at the gymnasium, roughly the equivalent of a grammar school, last decade. Compulsory military service ended this July.
As a consequence of these two developments the Rectors' Conference (HRK), representing higher education institutions, expects nearly 60,000 more first-year students will enrol than last winter semester, when 440,000 new enrolments resulted in the overall student population peaking at 2.2 million.
First-year student levels dipped to 360,000 in 2005, but have picked up again since 2007.
This has generally been welcomed by higher education organisations and the federal government, especially given that Germany has been repeatedly criticised by the OECD for its comparatively low higher education participation rate.
More importantly, though, the country is in urgent need of specialists, particularly in the engineering sciences. Several firms are already recruiting large numbers of skilled employees from other European countries.
"Institutions are well aware of what is in store for them," said HRK President Margret Wintermantel. "They have been preparing various measures ranging from introducing more tutorials and awarding more lectureships to renting more rooms."
Nevertheless, Wintermantel still believes that students will have to put up with some overcrowding.
In 2007 federal and state governments agreed a Higher Education Pact, aimed at securing funding up to 2020. The first phase incorporated funding for an additional 90,000 study places up to 2010.
A second phase up to 2015 consists of funding for institutional and staff development to accommodate a further 275,000 students. The federal government is providing around EUR4.7 billion (US$6.7 billion) for this phase. In total, the 16 state governments are providing an equal share - in theory at least.
"Not all of the states have provided funding complementary to that of the federal government in the Higher Education Pact," Wintermantel told a recent HRK meeting in Berlin. "And in some states, there are clear tendencies to cut subsidies for higher education elsewhere, either directly or indirectly."
Wintermantel maintained that sometimes, collectively-bargained rises in salaries were not being financed, with reference being made to the availability of federal cash for this purpose.
Also, a number of institutions had pledged to make "contributions of their own", effectively committing themselves to take on more students than they had capacity for and to put up with overcrowding or raise the teaching load of staff.
"We call on the state governments to at least provide one-to-one complementary funding to the federal measures," Wintermantel said, stressing the threat to teaching quality.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters