GERMANY: Government under fire for low OECD marks

The German government has come under fire from the country's education and science union for another poor showing in the OECD's annual Education at a Glance report.

The report shows concern that Germany is not turning out enough graduates, a factor that could prove crucial in efforts to recover from the present economic crisis.

"Again and again, the OECD has pointed out to German politicians that they are investing far too little money in the education sector," said GEW head Ulrich Thöne in response to the new study.

"On an international scale, Germany would have to put at least 30 to 40 billion euro (US$44-59 billion) into education. Money isn't everything, but additional funds are urgently needed to implement necessary reforms and compensate for a lack of money through under-funding in crèches, schools and higher education institutions."

Germany fares poorly in the report's comparison of the organisation's 30 member countries, with education spending at just 4.8% of GDP. The US, Denmark and Korea spend up to 7%, and the only countries that Germany is ahead of are Turkey, Belgium and Mexico. About half of the OECD countries increased education spending between 2000 and 2006, while Germany's expenditure hardly changed.

Also, the OECD's Education Directorate head Barbara Ischinger warned that Germany's production of higher education graduates was too low for the country to emerge strengthened from the economic crisis. The report's statistics show that at 34%, the proportion of first-year students per age cohort had fallen for the third year in succession in 2007. It states that the trend is all the more worrying because the economic crisis is resulting in poorer job prospects and increased demand for labour only exists in areas requiring high qualification levels.

On a more positive note, Germany boasted a dropout rate of 23% in 2005, compared to an OECD average of 31%. Ischinger put this down to the Bologna process. Bachelors and masters courses are more streamlined in comparison to courses in Germany's traditional system, and further progress made in introducing them is expected to lower the dropout rate even further.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Annette Schavan - drawing on figures from the Federal Office of Statistics - stated that "Germany is maintaining its leading position in international competition". Schavan stressed that the government's goal of recruiting 40% of an age cohort for higher education had almost been achieved at 39%. She attributed this largely to government measures like the Higher Education Pact, in which federal and state governments provided Euro 1 billion (US$1.47 billion) during 2007-2010 so an additional 90,000 young people could enrol.

Furthermore, the Education Ministry highlighted Germany's attractiveness to foreign students. Those studying in Germany account for 8.6% of all foreign students within the OECD countries, making it the third most popular place to study after the US and the UK.

Nevertheless, Thöne argued that much more has to be done, putting the 36% share of first-year students per age cohort into perspective by comparing it with the OECD average of 56%. "If you want more students and academics, you have to break the link between social background and educational opportunities," Thöne said.

"This process starts with more and more qualitatively high-value places in kindergartens, but it also requires changing conditions of access to higher education and creating incentives to take up studying. Overcrowded seminars, the prospect of a pile of debt on graduating and uncertain career opportunities are hardly attractive."

Thöne demanded in particular that better access be created for people with advanced vocational qualifications.

While OECD indicators can be very revealing, it should be remembered that these financial and investment indicators all use data ending in 2006/07. Thus to criticise Germany for underinvestment on the basis of data from the first half of the decade is legitimate, but a slightly historical exercise - a bit like writing an article now on why invading Iraq is wrong. What is more revealing of where things are going are the current policy responses of governments at a time of economic crisis, and here the German governnment - committed to signficant stimulus investment into higher education - looks to be much better and more forward-thinking than most other EU and OECD countries. It's therefore curious that current policy is ignored in this article...

David Crosier