What changes does the AfD seek in higher education?

The ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ or AfD’s shocking (if not entirely surprising) result in last Sunday’s German parliamentary election presents an opportunity for reflection on the party’s education platform. What sort of change is the far-right opposition party, which garnered over 13% of the vote, hoping and likely to make?

What changes is AfD likely to seek?

  • Abandonment of the Bologna-led move towards bachelor and masters degrees, and a return to the Diplom and Magister

    Markus Frohnmaier, an AfD member and Bundestag candidate, has argued that the bachelor degree has not yet been ‘established’ in the workplace as a valuable qualification. It would be preferable, in the party’s view, to return to the traditional degree-granting system.

    The implications of a departure from the Bologna process are substantial: one imagines logistical challenges for German students seeking to study elsewhere in Europe, as well as high costs for the German post-secondary system as a return to previous syllabi and degree structures is implemented.

  • Combating massification and re-establishing a two-track system

    Professor Joachim Starbatty, emeritus professor of Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, formerly an AfD representative, has previously argued for a return to a two-track system of apprenticeship and university admission.

    He previously invoked massification as a trend that has devalued university education. Indeed, the AfD’s 2017 campaign platform explicitly calls for a strict separation between the Abitur – previously the principal qualifying mechanism for university – and the school-leaving certificates of lower level high schools.

    That is to say, the aim is to shrink the proportion of students enrolled in university in order both to raise the quality of university study and to re-energise the vocational training sector.

    While portions of this argumentation have been used by mainstream scholars to problematise massification, there is, of course, enormous difficulty in going backwards in this way. For prospective students and families who perceive the global knowledge economy to be real and a university degree to be their golden ticket to entry, it will always be ‘someone else’ who ought to pursue a vocational track, not the student themselves.

  • Supporting the independence of universities to further top research

    The AfD platform prioritises the support of ‘top research’ at German universities and advocates for a higher level of state funding to minimise the influence of external parties. Further, the party supports the right of universities to operate distinct entrance examinations.

    In practice, this would likely mean two things. First, a polarisation of the higher education sector with so-called ‘excellence’ universities and other historic institutions establishing more difficult exams, likely to privilege students from the middle and upper classes, with German as the primary language.

    Second, it seems likely to strongly impact the curricula of upper level high schools (gymnasium) and to engender a testing culture akin to that in France, where students of a certain economic class pay for extra-curricular instruction over long periods of time in order to pass the exams of the Grandes Écoles. Neither approach seems likely to enhance equity or improve quality.

  • Rolling back the influence of OECD, PISA and other international foundations

    Continuing its nationalistic agenda, AfD takes an explicit stand against the involvement in German education of international organisations and foundations, including OECD – the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – and PISA – the Programme for International Student Assessment.

    The failure to participate – and presumably use the results of international benchmarks such as these – would, one imagines, prove problematic fairly quickly. For instance, how well and how quickly could the German school system identify a problem with new curricula reconfigured to match new university entrance examinations if there were no benchmarks?

  • German as the primary language of study

    As we have seen in other national contexts, the AfD identifies the language of university instruction as a key element of what German education should be.

    At the moment, according to the DAAD Hochschulkompass, there are 1,318 university level programmes in English, 19 in Spanish, 15 in French, and a handful in other languages, out of a total of 19,133 university programmes.

    Without any change in federal or state policy, it seems unlikely that the number of English-taught courses will continue to grow – the German language academic culture is entrenched.

    However, given the demographic problem facing Germany in the coming decades, there are advantages to welcoming international students with the presumption that some might stay to work and live. This, it seems, is actually what the German language policy seeks to guard against.

Other key points

I have not discussed here several other key points of the AfD agenda, which include the preference to educate students with disabilities separately from other students (presumably removing them from ‘mainstreamed’ classrooms), that refugees should be educated to return to their country of origin rather than integrate, and the position that instruction around Islamic religious tradition should not take place in German schools.

These items merit extensive discussion, to say the least, and are incredibly problematic in terms of equity and access.

It will be interesting to see which of the AfD’s agenda items come up for debate in the next session of the Bundestag.

There are, indeed, left-leaning politicians who support greater state funding for universities, as well as those across the political spectrum who have worried about the ‘Akademisierungswahn’ of Germany – and the lower proportion of the cohort opting for vocational education. A clear danger is that through its parliamentary influence, the AfD might be in a position to normalise its positions.

We should be explicit about this: while positions themselves, divorced from ideological background, may seem defensible, educational policy proposals do not exist in a vacuum. There is always a context, and in this unfortunate case, it is an extremist one.

Lisa Unangst is a PhD student in international higher education at Boston College, United States, and a research assistant at Boston College's Center for International Higher Education.