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Germany: A bigger role for the federal government in higher education?

Germany’s federal minister for education and research, Annette Schavan, intends to abolish the “cooperation ban” between the federal government and the states (Länder) as articulated in the country’s constitution (Grundgesetz). This ban effectively prevents the federal government from funding higher education, with few exceptions (mostly of a temporary nature, like the “initiative for excellence”). The reformed law would make it possible for the central government to create federal universities, although the practical intentions go more in the direction of co-funding institutions or parts thereof, and to structurally link up universities with extra-university research institutes.

Schavan intends to implement her plans fast, hoping for the new law to enter into force in a year from now. The “coalition committee” of the parties forming the federal government – the Christian Democrats, the Christian Social Union (in Bavaria) and the Free Democrats – has already passed the proposal. The next step is the adoption by the cabinet of ministers of Chancellor Angela Merkel, which should pose no problems. A real hurdle is the securing of the two thirds majority in both chambers of parliament, which is required for any constitutional change.  

In principle, everyone concerned agrees that a federal contribution to the country’s higher education budgets is desirable. But the Social Democrats, the biggest opposition party at the federal level and in many state governments, find the change too limited and would want to extend it to the secondary level as well. And even some Länder with a Christian Democrat-led government are not enthusiastic. Why would they want to refuse badly needed extra funds?  So far, the decision making power in higher education is almost exclusively at state level. Would greater federal engagement not lead (almost necessarily) to a bigger say of the central government and limit state power? He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Germany’s universities are all in favour of Schavan’s plan. In a parliamentary hearing, Margret Wintermantel, the President of Germany’s Rectors’ Conference HRK, warmly welcomed the initiative, calling it simply necessary. She also pleaded to avoid an absurd situation where, in spite of almost universal agreement on the non-tenability of the present situation, the plan would fail due to tactical positioning by some of the actors.

German Rector’s Conference (HRK) German Federal Ministry of Education and Research