GERMANY: Uncertainty about economic downturn

The impact of the economic crisis on Germany has been difficult to assess. The federal government launched two massive programmes to boost business over the last few months and the second, also targeting education and infrastructure, could benefit higher education. Overall, however, the mood is one of vague apprehension while among students scepticism is growing that government measures could bypass their immediate needs altogether.

At a members' meeting last weekend of the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz or HRK - Germany's organisation of heads of higher education institutions - the economic crisis was referred to as a danger a number of times but its possible immediate impacts were not specified. The HRK points out that funding of higher education in Germany is far more secure than in a number of other European countries.

Indeed, the Joint Higher Education and Research Commission, successor to the former federal and state government Commission for Higher Education and Research which handled funding issues, continues to pledge that the funding programmes currently underway will continue as planned.

The government's second programme to boost the economy got underway early this year. It provides EUR10 billion (US$13 billion) for additional local and federal-state government funding in education and infrastructure. In higher education, most of the money is being used to finance repair and building measures.

Florian Keller, a spokeswoman for the student union Freier Zusammenschluss von Student Innenschaften, doubts that the additional funds will benefit students.

"North Rhine-Westphalia has allocated some of the extra money to the Student Welfare Service for building and repair measures in student accommodation," Keller said. "But policies vary from state to state. Much of the funds will be going into new facilities for Clusters of Excellence. True, they may need these buildings but that hardly helps the situation of the students."

He stressed that the broader impact of the economic crisis could have massive effects on students: "Recent surveys by the union showed it is mostly parents who fund their children going to the university.

"With more and more lay-offs and short time work, more and more families are earning less. Increases in student grants aren't matching these developments and many students have to find additional jobs to fund their studies."

The impact of the crisis on graduates is making itself felt, too, Keller maintained. Job opportunities for academics had become much poorer over the last 18 months and many graduates were enrolling for new courses to wait out the recession.

This year will see the first relatively large cohort of bachelors graduating from new courses at institutions. But, with congestion already building up, those seeking places at universities to do a masters course could have difficulty.

Meanwhile, with federal parliament elections set for September, politicians are outdoing each other in their bids to cope with the economic crisis. Speaking at a party conference last weekend, Social Democrat contender for Federal Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier pledged his party's firm opposition to tuition fees - possibly a glimmer of hope for students from not-so-wealthy backgrounds.