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.


The German system of education and training provides another example. Here it is generally the case that the actual content conveyed through training and study is more important than the reputation of the educational institution. Companies expect to be able to employ the young people who graduate from this system immediately after they have completed their training as prime and productive workers. In contrast to the university sector, however, in the case of vocational training, the two dimensions overlap. In other words, it matters both what one learns (for instance, mechatronics or hairdressing) and where one learns it (for instance, with Mercedes or the salon around the corner).

Thus, here, too, there exists a clear hierarchy that sends unambiguous signals to employers: training with a major industrial company ranks perceptibly higher than training acquired in a small shop. The existence of this effective sorting and signaling mechanism has done much to ensure that, for long periods of time, the transition from training to employment in Germany has been much simpler and faster than in countries with undifferentiated, mostly school-based systems of vocational training (as in France or Italy).

In the field of university education, there has thus far been no unambiguous and transparent hierarchy of learning institutions accepted by all sides. Certainly, there have been subliminally communicated and generally established attributions of status frequently associated with the traditions of a university. Heidelberg, for example, stands for law, Aachen and Karlsruhe for mechanical engineering. The undifferentiated higher education system must also be seen against the backdrop of the historical development of Germany’s universities from an elitist group to one tailored to mass consumption: prior to the expansion of the education system in the 1970s, when the ratio of students was low and there were fewer universities, the signal effect of a university degree was sufficient in itself to facilitate smooth transition to employment.

After the expansion in education, as the market became swamped with graduates touting grades, the signal effect of a university qualification progressively diminished. A university degree, even with good grades, is no longer enough to beat off the competition or secure access to elite positions. Where the education system sends no unambiguous signals, there is considerable risk that companies will base their appointments on secondary criteria.

In his studies of the composition and origin of Germany’s business elite, Michael Hartmann has established that access is not based on performance actually achieved or qualification requirements met, but is oriented very strongly toward soft factors, such as the right disposition, subliminally communicated behavioral codes or simply personal networks. These factors make it systematically harder for those attempting to ascend from lower strata to penetrate elite business circles, which is why, even by international comparison, Germany’s business elite must be regarded as a particularly tight-knit circle.

Universities must become more open

To the extent to which a differentiated system of higher education establishes transparent, credible signaling mechanisms, access to employment will be oriented toward these signals. Those who make it to an elite university are likely to enjoy the best employment opportunities. Is that a problem, or progress? It should be regarded as progress provided that three conditions are met:

First, a reform of the higher education system must be accompanied by reform of the secondary school system. If higher education is to become a central mechanism of social advancement, access to universities must be broadened. Specific mechanisms to be implemented in the medium term might include abolishing the Hauptschule (roughly, junior high school or secondary modern) as has just been initiated in the Rhineland-Palatinate, and improving the transmissibility between vocational training and university education.

Second, the core of the higher education system must remain in the public sector and accessible to all. Even if the universities are given full autonomy in their selection of students and proceed to charge moderate tuition fees, “American” conditions are not to be expected in either the short or medium term. The chronic lack of finance from which public-sector universities are suffering cannot, however, be eliminated solely through tuition fees. A resolute finance offensive on behalf of public universities becomes all the more urgent as private alternatives increasingly establish themselves and employ economic selection mechanisms (truly high tuition fees), which raise the barrier to high-quality university education.

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