BONN — A LAID-BACK aura lingers around Bonn University after the academic year winds down. On the lawn outside, students sunbathe, play a guitar, or read a book.
But in the halls of academic power, the mood is anything but relaxed. Many administrators speak of an impending crisis in German higher education.
German education is steeped in a tradition that has produced great thinkers from Goethe and Karl Marx to last year's Nobel Prize winner for economics, Reinhard Selten. But some observers say the system and the students have become complacent - unwilling or unable to adapt to the information age.
Germany's high-tech competitiveness, made famous through such giants as automaker BMW and Siemens, the computer conglomerate, could suffer.
"The capability of German markets to compete is dependent on the quality of the student graduates on the one hand, and on the quality of research on the other," says Jens-Uwe Erichsen, chairman of the Higher Education Rectors' Conference, a grouping of university administrators from across Germany.
On both sides of Mr. Erichsen's equation, German universities are starting to lag behind other industrialized nations. Students, many administrators contend, are becoming too self-content, while a government budget crunch is putting the squeeze on funding for university research work.
A blunter competitive edge
State financing for university research has dropped more than 20 percent since 1978, according to figures from the rectors' conference. Private enterprises now carry an overwhelming share of research and development. Some observers see this as a dangerous trend.
"When industry experiences difficult times, research is cut back," says Karl-Heinz Hoffmann, head of the Scientific Council, an organization that coordinates research in Germany. He argues that making research vulnerable to cutbacks lowers the country's ability to compete.
"If we don't make any changes, then Germany will lose in the race to be a research center," says Konrad Schily, president of the University of Witten-Herdecke, one of Germany's few privately run institutions of higher education.
But many higher-education officials say that such flexibility is not something that the German system is known for. "The long traditions in Germany are a good thing," Hoffmann said, "but it is also an obstacle due to the resistance to change."
One such tradition is the role of the state in higher education. For centuries, German universities have been run almost exclusively by the government.
Before Germany's diverse kingdoms and principalities were unified in the 19th century, royal rulers, especially in Prussia, maintained tight control over universities. Graduates were sent to fill the ranks of the bureaucracy and support the government.
Although the various German monarchies have succumbed to history, the authoritarian trait remains entrenched in German universities. The system is laden with bureaucracy: Professors are beholden not to university administrators, but to government officials. In addition, the state remains responsible for funding higher education.
Given the government's control over higher education, many reform advocates worry that change won't come fast enough. "A government never wants the future, it wants the past, because the past is known to it," Mr. Schily says.
Erichsen and others also suggest that professors, who enjoy lifetime tenure, may be an impediment to change. Professors may fear tinkering with the system will erode their extensive privileges. "There are some who think they can solve the problems of tomorrow with yesterday's concepts. But there is also a greater awareness of the need to change," Erichsen says.
Some proposed changes would simply be a matter of money. Increased government funding could ease overcrowded conditions by providing new facilities, more staff, and new teaching materials. But the government isn't in a mood to increase allocations - it is still recuperating from paying for Germany's 1990 reunification.
A new snob appeal
Another change on the horizon is more subtle: a challenge to egalitarianism.
Germany's social welfare net is designed to keep the gap between rich and poor to a minimum, and universities hold the same goal. Officials try to ensure a relatively uniform quality of education. While Germany cannot boast any truly elite universities, such as Oxford or Cambridge University in Britain or Harvard University in the United States, tuition is free and anyone who passes a high school graduating exam may attend.
Developing elite universities that could become leaders in research should be a priority in Germany, Erichsen says, but he admits that doing so is easier said than done.
"This is not quite compatible with German tradition. We're stuck with a tradition in which German universities are more or less equal," he says.
Reformers also hope to streamline curriculums to shorten the time students need to graduate. German students take five years or more to get a degree, roughly the equivalent of a master's in the United States.
One option under discussion is introducing an ersatz bachelor's degree, which would allow students to leave school in their early 20s rather than in their mid- to late-20s as is now the case.
Life of comfort
If proposed changes are to take hold, it's not only the state, administrators, and professors who will have to adjust, Erichsen and others say. Students will have to work harder to graduate sooner. "Students have a relatively comfortable life, and this acts as a narcotic that makes them not want to leave university," says Horst Bachmann, head of the federal agency of student affairs.
Some say students have become spoiled by Germany's prosperity, which their parents and grandparents struggled to create from the ashes of World War II.
"Students should be more aware of their community responsibility, looking at competitiveness," Erichsen says. "They are prepared to accept everything, but are not prepared to take responsibility for keeping things moving forward."
*Part 1 of a two-part series on German education.