A few weeks ago I delivered a few thoughts on German universities at a meeting in Lübeck. I was invited, I suppose, because I've taught and studied at U.S. universities, and have now taught at a German university for several years, and therefore have a base of comparison. The friendly folks at Lübeck suspected I might have some opinions about how German universities are structured and run. They weren't wrong. Instead of just letting these brilliant nuggets of enlightenment fade in the memory of the conference attendees, I'd put some flesh on my notes and share them with the world.
For you busy executives who need my comments in summary form, here they are: German universities, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, set themselves the admirable goal of providing a free higher education to all students who qualified, regardless of the students' race, gender, or economic or social class. That's right, I said 'free.' The student need never pay any tuition, and receives a subsidy from the State to cover basic needs. To anyone concerned with social stratification, this appears to be - and really is - a noble endeavor.
On the way from articulation of noble principles to actual real-world practice, though, a few things went wrong. The political and social necessity of opening up the universities (or at least the prospect of a university education) to ever-larger numbers of young people led to chronic overcrowding. Because there are essentially no private German universities, all these new students came streaming into the existing public institutions, which had to be expanded at breakneck pace. The student binge also led to a poorly-planned expansion of the existing universities' administrative apparatus. Now, universities are run like bloated bureaucracies. Finally, the over-admission has resulted in a "go-it-alone" atmosphere for students. Because the university must spread its resources over such a large cohort of students (including at least 25% who will never graduate), it sometimes fails to single out and nurture the best students.