Universities – Elitist but nevertheless fair?

The Excellence Initiative pursued by Germany’s federal government has acted as a catalyst in stimulating and accelerating the process of differentiation in the German university landscape. Critics fear increasing polarization between “elite” and “mass-market” institutions. Marius R. Busemeyer, however, sees opportunities arising from this development – and explains why and under what conditions the process of differentiation may, in the long term, improve the efficiency, as well as the fairness of the German education and employment system.

Differentiation leads to fairness

Underlying these comments is the accusation that differentiation between universities actually hastens the process of limiting access to education and employment to an elite few. In the following, I would like to set out a counter-argument to this hypothesis. Specifically, I intend to postulate the theory that differentiation in higher education will, in the long term, improve the fairness and efficiency of the German education and employment system. This, in turn, has the potential to promote greater social justice, given that access to employment will then be achieved primarily on the basis of performance rather than through secondary criteria such as private networks or a convenient disposition.

Before setting out the core of my argument in greater detail, I would like to highlight some of the blind spots in the current debate on the Excellence Initiative. It is particularly striking that the interfaces between the university system and adjacent fields, that is to say, primary and secondary education on the one hand, and the qualification and recruitment strategies of business enterprises on the other, have thus far received little consideration. Yet a comprehensive assessment of the consequences of differentiation between universities must necessarily include these institutional cross-connections.

In matters of primary and secondary education, the PISA debate has, at the very least, put education reform back on the agenda. Once again, the German education system has been shown to exhibit a particularly marked degree of social stratification relative to other OECD countries. Rather than doing away with class differences, the distribution of education resources in Germany reinforces the class divide – no wonder, then, that the average standard of educational achievement is mediocre.

It might be argued that vocational training offers young people in Germany with weaker educational qualifications an attractive alternative to university – and indeed, one that is much admired abroad for its considerable potential for the social integration of its target candidates into qualified learning and employment. But here, too, there are clear signs of erosion: the rising number of unplaced applicants and young people “put on hold,” as well as the decline in job security for both skilled and unskilled workers, shows that vocational training can no longer compensate for the weaknesses of the education system in general.

Higher education reform must therefore always be viewed in the context of the education system as a whole. Not that one should draw the false conclusion that the same principles for reform should be applied in all education sectors. Abolition of the structured school system is long overdue. The unequal standards of achievement in secondary education must be replaced by the new paradigm of equality and transmissibility. Thus far, however, little consideration has been given to the link between the discussion of the Excellence Initiative and the reform of other education sectors.

This brings me now to the core hypothesis, which considers the subject of differentiation in the university landscape from the perspective of the “customer” – that is to say, of businesses seeking qualified staff. Research into the labor market and education has shown that, when appointing specialist staff, businesses tend to rely on signals provided by the education system. Systems of education and qualification in various countries differ in terms of the nature and intensity of these signals.

Consider, for example, the US higher education system. This strongly differentiated system offers an effective and highly transparent signaling mechanism founded in an unambiguous university hierarchy or ranking. As a result, the subject in which a candidate has gained his or her bachelor’s degree is less important – at least when it comes to post-graduate appointments – than the prestige of the university he or she attended. Companies assume, in any event, that new employees will initially undergo a period of internal qualification.

The higher education system in the US certainly should not serve as a blueprint for reform in Germany. Elements such as the often crippling tuition fees and the perpetuation of genuinely elitist recruiting mechanisms on the part of the truly elite universities ought not to be adopted (Karl-Ulrich Mayer). On the other hand, studies show that the education, and above all, higher education systems in the US represent hugely important factors in social advancement.

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