GERMANY: Education summit a disappointment

Seemingly undaunted by the international financial crisis which has also rocked some German banks, the Federal Government went ahead with its Education Summit last Wednesday. But the meeting ended in a row over the 16 state governments' insistence on getting a greater share of VAT revenue for investment in education.

Originally intended as a historic document sealing a common federal and state government approach in education policy, the Dresden Declaration was overshadowed by money squabbles, and fell far short of expectations. Now, a joint working group is to be appointed by Chancellor Angela Merkel that is expected to come up with more detailed proposals on education spending by October 2009 and, above all, on where the money is supposed to come from.

What the two sides did agree was to raise expenditure on education and research to 10% of the Gross Domestic Product by 2015. Current spending on education is at around 6.2%, and on research at about 2.7%. In order to reach the 2015 target, it has been estimated that anything between EUR25-60 billion a year would have to be provided additionally for education and research. No concrete funding measures were adopted at the summit.

The meeting was held in Dresden, close to Saxony's "Silicon Valley" area, to mark a determined effort to boost Germany's role as a high-tech nation relying heavily on its education and research system. But industry is already complaining of a lack of skilled staff.

With 36% of an age group enrolling for higher education, the share of first-year students is low in comparison with other industrialised countries. Overcrowding of institutions nevertheless still presents a problem because of previous large cohorts. Many institutions are in a poor state of repair while teaching staff numbers are insufficient. Every fifth student gives up studying.

Politicians in Dresden have agreed on achieving a target of a 40% first-year student share of an age group, and 275,000 new study places are to be created. Also, access to higher education without an "Abitur" secondary school-leaving certificate is to be made easier. The system of practice-oriented degree-granting Fachhochschulen is to be extended, and the country's "Excellence Initiative" awarding top research at universities with extra funding is to be continued.

But a recommendation by the Science Council, Germany's chief higher education and research advisory body, to provide an annual extra EUR1billion to improve teaching in higher education was ignored in Dresden.

The summit has met with considerable criticism, also among members of the Social Democratic Party, part of the ruling Coalition Government together with the Christian Democrats. Kurt Beck, SPD Chief Minister of Rhineland Palatinate, said he was "very disappointed".

The Opposition Greens spoke of a "disaster", while Germany's new leftwing party "Die Linke" called the meeting "a flop". The Rectors' Conference criticised the absence of any new binding commitments to higher education funding while the chair of Germany's teachers' and scientists' trade union, Ulrich Thöne, said: "Merkel's Education Republic of Germany is dead."