GERMANY: Merkel government faces tough HE decisions

Following elections on 27 September, Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) remains Chancellor of Germany. She can now form a new coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP). Whether Annette Schavan will remain Education Minister or junior partners FDP will provide a new education head is uncertain. But with both parties eager to cut taxes, any minister will struggle to find money to fund an expansion of higher education.

At just under 71% turnout reached an all-time low, explained largely by the campaigns of the major parties lacking bite. Even an eagerly awaited 'television duel' between Merkel and Social Democrat contender Frank-Walter Steinmeier was painfully harmonious, smacking more of negotiations over a coalition than an electoral clash.

But with the Social Democrats scoring their worst result ever, Merkel is free to form a new coalition with the FDP, her party of choice. The third party, the Christian Social Union, was part of the former government and is essentially a Bavarian version of the CDU.

Despite much talk of brains being Germany's most important asset, education was given low priority by the major parties in the election campaign. As a leading daily put it, "politics simply bypassed young people".

This sentiment was backed by international poll observer groups invited to a discussion by the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, in Berlin a day after the poll. Summing up the impressions of doctoral candidates in the observer groups, Anna Tomaszewska of the Willy Brandt Centre for German and European Studies in Breslau, Poland, said: "It was a pity that politics didn't focus on the concerns of the people."

The FDP manifesto contained the longest statement on higher education among the larger parties. It is in favour of having institutional autonomy entrenched in the Constitution. Other steps - such as introducing tuition fees, partial funding of institutions by industry or powers to decide on staffing issues - would follow from this.

The FDP stressed that autonomy should not be equated with privatisation. It favours foundations as a suitable legal structure for institutions. Students should be free to choose their institutions - and institutions to choose their students. A grants system ought to be established for poorer students. The FDP would also like more competition between the federal states in higher education. Federal responsibilities would include higher education coordination, and quality and mobility assurance.

The CDU also stressed the cultural sovereignty of the states while assigning federal government the role of promoting uniform education standards. Further elements of the CDU manifesto included a national grants system for students and increasing the number of students in the natural and engineering sciences, and above all in medicine.

In response to increasing criticism of new bachelor and masters courses introduced under the Bologna Process, Schavan announced a review of the process last summer, and the CDU has stressed that it should not automatically be applied to all subjects.

A further CDU objective is to have 10% of gross domestic product allocated to education by 2015. But only recently Schavan had to face the bitter fact that Germany fared rather poorly in the latest OECD statistics on education spending.

While Schavan could well stay in office under Merkel, the Free Democrats had a formidable track record in the Education Ministry in the 1980s and 1990s. A possible contender for the post could be the party's current Deputy Federal Chair Cornelia Pieper.

Andreas Keller, board member of the Teachers' and Scientists' Trade Union (GEW) for higher education and research, has doubts about the future coalition parties providing any additional funding for higher education. "The key issue is how the tax cuts that these parties are eager to introduce are supposed to be implemented while higher education spending is simultaneously increased," he said. "This can't really work."

Keller even believes programmes like the Higher Education Pact, providing an extra EUR1 billion (US$1.5 billion) for 2007-10, could be wound down. He also fears that the 'BAFöG' state support system for students could be replaced with grant systems that no longer provide any legal claim to support.

He is equally sceptical about the FDP's pledge to raise student numbers. "Tuition fees, which both the FDP and the CDU clearly approve of, have turned out to be a disincentive. We are experiencing a turn of the tide as student beginner numbers start to stagnate. Fees are only raised in five out of the 16 federal states, with the state of the Saar about to opt out," he explained.

"Also, it is vital to ensure that the new course structures become more attractive for students. The federal government could have a role to play here, for example by setting up a round table to discuss viable structures." Finally, Keller said, talk of scrapping the state student support system will tend to put young people from poorer backgrounds off studying.