Politicians discuss federal-state HE ‘cooperation ban’

While moves towards a new government in Germany have so far made little overall progress, the four parties involved in the current talks on forming a coalition could reach agreement on some education and research issues.

It is now more than two months since Germany went to the polls, and negotiations between the Christian Democrats or CDU, their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union or CSU, the Free Democrats or FDP, and the Greens have proved to be tedious. However, the four parties could be reaching agreement on at least one highly controversial issue in the field of education and research.

The so-called ‘ban on cooperation’ between federal and state authorities has been hotly debated ever since the 2006 Federalism Reform, which resulted in new guidelines for joint measures by federal and state governments in education and research.

In May 2014, Horst Hippler, president of the German Rectors’ Conference or Hochschulrektorenkonferenz, representing the heads of higher education institutions, strongly reminded the federal government to do away with the ban, as promised in the then coalition agreement.

“In order to avoid drastic consequences for young people eager to study and a total collapse of higher education institutions, state and federal governments at last have to put an end to their permanent squabbling over areas of responsibility and work together,” Hippler stated.

Germany’s 16 federal states enjoy a high level of autonomy in education matters. In 1970, however, the Bund-Länder or Federal-State Commission on Educational Planning and Research Promotion, or BLK, was set up as a permanent forum for representatives of the then 11 states and the federal government to address cross-cutting issues in education and research.

On this basis, the BLK gave the heads of the federal and state governments recommendations on educational planning and research funding in a wide range of areas.

In line with the 2006 Federalism Reform, educational planning was no longer defined as a joint task for the federal and state governments, and the BLK was replaced by the Joint Science Conference or GWK, whose members comprise federal and state government ministers and senators responsible for science, research and finance.

The GWK members “strive for close coordination on questions of common interest in the field of national, European and international science and research policy with the aim of strengthening Germany’s position as a location for science and research in international competition”.

Cooperation between the federal and state governments is only provided for as an exception, and on a temporary basis.

In practice, however, the federal and state governments have joined forces in numerous contexts since 2006, notably in special funding programmes to boost teaching and research standards.

But in spite of the ‘ban on cooperation’ being ridiculed by many politicians and higher education representatives, the present coalition government has failed to have it lifted.

Representatives of the prospective new ‘Jamaica’ coalition – named after the Jamaican flag, whose colours match those of the parties involved – have at least shown a willingness to discuss a reform of federal and state responsibilities in the education and research sector.

“For the CSU, it is important that the federal structures are maintained without losing sight of the challenges Germany as a whole is facing,” says CSU General Secretary Andreas Scheuer. Bavaria, Germany’s wealthiest federal state, has traditionally been reticent about federal commitments in the education sector.

All four parties were in agreement that more government funding be provided both for education and for research and development.

FDP General Secretary Nicola Beer seeks to have government grants made available to students via the Bundesausbildungs-Förderungsgesetz or BAFöG – the federal law on education and training support – awarded on a non-means tested basis, arguing that the numbers of students applying for BAFöG have been dwindling.

“Students have to be able to concentrate on what they can do best: acquiring knowledge and creating knowledge – and making the world a better place,” she argues.

Michael Gardner Email: