WITTEN, GERMANY — KONRAD SCHILY, president of the University of Witten-Herdecke, thinks he has a formula that would allow Germany to keep on producing top-notch graduates: expand private education.
Because higher education is mostly government funded and supervised, universities cannot always respond to educational trends, Mr. Schily says. Private universities, because they must market themselves to students, would have to stay in sync with their needs.
"Our political leaders think it's possible to make improvement [in education] by reforming the state and not reforming the education system itself," Schily says. "Universities should be responsible for themselves - essentially make them a business."
Schily is one of the few voices promoting private education. But that's nothing unusual for him. In 1981, he helped found Witten-Herdecke, the first private university in Germany. Today, it's still only one of a handful of private institutions of higher education.
The concept of state responsibility for higher education is so ingrained, Schily says, that when he first proposed the idea to launch a private alternative "people laughed."
"When I went to a member of parliament from this constituency to talk about the concept he told me; 'No. I want to be reelected. What you're asking for is a revolution,' " Schily recalls.
But people aren't laughing at private education anymore. "People recognize there is a problem, and they want to see what we are doing," he says. "Here, there's more freedom. It's not bureaucratic."
Skepticism remains widespread about the viability of private education in Germany. However, officials in the Ruhr Valley city of Witten, where the university is located, are recognizing the value of the private option. The city will contribute about $4.5 million to the school's operating budget next year - with no strings attached, per Schily's request.
The university, which now has about 700 students, got off the ground thanks to private backing, primarily from banks. But since its inception, money has always been in short supply. To alleviate the funding pressure, the university introduced a roughly $4,000 annual tuition fee - a fraction of the cost to attend private universities in America.
The fee naturally proved controversial with students, but most feel they get good value for their money. "The doors [to administrators' offices] are always open," says Christopher Petzenhauser, a first-year student.