German Universities May Soon Hand Out Bills With Report Cards

Government considers education reforms that would allow schools to charge tuition.

Germany's 600-year-old university system has become a haven for slackers, according to the government.

On average, students take 14 semesters - some seven years - to finish programs designed to take four to five years. In western Germany, the on-time completion rate is only 40 percent.

The government worries that because they are graduating later than their counterparts in other countries, German students are hurting their chances in the global job market. Such fears are driving the debate on sweeping reforms recently proposed to Germany's Higher Education Framework Law.

In a major policy speech Nov. 5, German President Roman Herzog addressed the concern, saying "a person's education must not be detached from the realities of life."

Bonn is also worried that excessive government oversight has hampered university performance. "Universities can't be excellent if they don't have the possibility to take some decisions on their own," says Jrg Appelhans, a press attach with the German Ministry for Education and Science.

Besides limiting how many semesters a student can attend university at government expense, the reforms would devolve much of the current national responsibility back to the 16 federal states and individual institutions.

Perhaps the most controversial change the reforms envision, and one that has brought cries of alarm from educators and students, would give states and universities the option of charging tuition.

It's a startling prospect for a society that has enjoyed government-sponsored education since the end of World War II.

At present, university students in most states only pay administrative fees totaling from $250 to $315 dollars per school year. With tuition and health insurance covered by the state, their biggest financial burden is paying rent.

But since reunification, the expense of rehabilitating the former east Germany, coupled with the rigors of meeting the criteria for European Monetary Union, has put the crunch on Bonn's coffers.

"Nowadays, everything is a response to financial pressure," says Thomas Reif, a sociology major at the University of Leipzig, and a member of its student council.

Government spending on education has stagnated and fallen behind universities' rising costs, says Gerd Khler, who sits on the Executive Board of the German Trade Union of Education and Science.

If states do choose to charge tuition, Mr. Khler says, "this will be an extra barrier for those coming from not-so-rich families.

"This is a question of social inequality," he says.

More than 17 percent of university students in western Germany, and 5.9 percent of students in eastern Germany, hail from working-class families, according to a government-funded survey.

Late last month, the education reforms were introduced in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, where they are expected to pass.

But the legislation, which neither recommends nor discourages tuition, is expected to meet resistance in the upper house, or Bundesrat. There, opposition Social Democrats are demanding that the law explicitly prohibit tuition charges, in keeping with the principle of free education.

To further help students integrate into the global job market, the reform measure also introduces the option of pursuing bachelor's and master's degrees. Bonn worries that international employers have a hard time translating the current diplomas, roughly equivalent to American master's degrees, into qualifications.

In another break with tradition - perhaps the one most welcomed by students - universities would have to conduct student evaluations of professors.

Katharina Eberl, an economics major at the Technical University of Dresden and a member of its student council, says many of her professors are west German. They travel to Dresden on Tuesday, teach Wednesday, and then leave on Thursday.

"Sometimes you have to wait weeks if you want [an appointment] to talk to them," she explains. "We want the evaluations published to force the professors to raise their levels [of commitment]."

If passed, the legislation could go into effect as early as April. Proponents argue that states are unlikely to jump to begin charging tuition. Saxony's education minister, who helped draft the measure, has declared that tuition would not be introduced as long as he is in office.

Despite the reassurances, students worry that they and those who follow could be robbed of what has become an expected rite of passage.

Mr. Reif, the sociology major in Leipzig, laments, "It will make the question of whether to study or not a financial question."

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