The following article is from our December 2004 issue.

Heidelberg is Not Harvard ...and Germany is embarrassed. By Gebhard Schweigler

Germany is trying to regain its standing in the international academic community - but not making much progress.

Jena is not Yale. Berlin is not Berkeley and Munich Tech is not MIT.
And therein lies a development that makes German policy-makers ever more nervous - and transatlantic relations increasingly tricky.

A mere hundred years ago, the German educational system was the envy of the world.
The best minds from around the world came to Heidelberg, Berlin, or Göttingen to study and do research on the frontiers of science. In their own quest for excellence, American universities modeled themselves after German universities. Adolf Hitler did American universities an immense favor when he forced German institutions into alignment with Nazism - and many of Germany's best minds into exile in the United States. To this day, German universities have not fully recovered from that terrible brain drain - or from the painful realization that some of Germany's best thinkers were so easily seduced by Nazism. American universities, in turn, achieved a position of worldwide excellence that they have yet to yield. International surveys consistently acknowledge Harvard to be the best university in the world, followed by, in no particular order, MIT, Stanford, other Ivy League schools and the University of California at Berkeley. German universities appear around rank 45, with either Heidelberg or the universities of Munich in a leading position. Of the other 90 or so German universities, only 17 made the top 200 list in a recent Times survey. Germany is embarrassed.

Perhaps even more embarrassing is the revelation that secondary education in Germany seems to have slipped into mediocrity as well. Detailed international comparative assessments of student performance, undertaken by the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) among large numbers of 15-year olds, show German youngsters ranking 17th to 20th among the 31 nations tested. The latest PISA results are scheduled to be released on December 7 and are likely to cause considerable soul- and solution-searching. Beyond such embarrassments lies the realization that a country that relies on its brainpower for economic success yet at the same time has a mediocre education system is not ideally suited for meeting international competition in an increasingly global world. Thus, German policy-makers are professing determination to restore Germany to its erstwhile educational glory.

But that is no easy task in a country that suffers from reform blockades in just about all areas of public policy. The German education system worked perfectly in the 19th century, with its emphasis on selecting children early for advanced tracks, making teachers and professors civil servants and exercising strong state control over all aspects of education. But reforming it is particularly challenging in a political system that splits up responsibility among 16 federal states and a weak federal government. One seemingly obvious starting point to deal with Germany's educational malaise is to create a German Harvard.

But how to do that? (And never mind that it took Harvard 368 years to get where it is today, nor that it is hardly resting on its laurels, either.) Almost every hallowed German tradition argues against the establishment of an elite private institution like Harvard. The idea of creating an elite class is much frowned upon in a society committed to a high degree of equality. (PISA's discovery of significant class differences in student achievements adds insult to injury.)

In such a society, students are convinced that they are doing society - or the state - a favor by undergoing the arduous task of obtaining higher education. Surely they cannot be expected to pay for it. In Germany, it is expected that education on all levels be free, and students' living expenses be generously subsidized. Even the introduction of a minimal tuition fee at German universities has been vehemently resisted. The idea that higher education might be a personal investment in future earning opportunities is still very much alien in German society. Add in political and bureaucratic turf wars at a time of general budgetary constraints and you get a much ballyhooed compromise agreement to support centers of excellence at 10 selected universities to the tune of 1.9 billion euros (2.5 billion dollars) for the years 2006 to 2011.

To compare: Harvard has an endowment of nearly 20 billion dollars and annual expenditures of some 2.5 billion dollars. The publicly stated goal is to return Germany's higher education system to an leading position internationally by 2010. It is easy to doubt that that goal can be achieved, though there are some silver linings on the horizon. The few private universities established in Germany in recent years - offering degrees in business administration, law, and medicine - are indeed attracting top students (who pay for the privilege) and are now ranked nationally among the best in their fields. Culture and politics may yet change.

In the meantime, if Harvard can't come to Germany, Germans can go to Harvard.
Ever more German students have found their way to American universities for part- and full-time studies. Public and private grant programs support many, but quite a few are willing to pay hefty tuition and living expenses out of their own (or their parents') pockets. Surveys among American universities show that the number of German students enrolled in the United States reached a peak of 10,128 in 2000; since then, it has fallen back to 8,745 in 2003, which is almost the same number as in 1993. In addition to the students, it is estimated that some 5000 German postdocs and trainees are working in the United States.

Of the roughly 1.8 million students in Germany, more than 55,000 study abroad every year, a number that has tripled since 1980. Are almost 9,000 German students in the United States too many or too few? This is where it gets tricky. It is in Germany's interests not only to get its students well educated (which presumably is the case at American universities), but also to give its future leaders as broad an international exposure as possible. For those who worry about the current and future state of German-American relations, there can never be enough German students at American universities (or American students in Germany, which numbers about 5,000 per year).

But the world is not only the United States. Germany also needs - and wants - to make sure German students study in other European countries. With the establishment of the European Union, that has now become a primary goal, to be achieved with generous grant programs and the creation of a "European Higher Education Area," where credits and degrees are generally recognized (this forces Germany to establish Bachelor and Master degree programs - a major reform). In addition, Germany needs expertise in countries of current and future interest (China readily comes to mind, as does the Middle East). So maybe too many students are, in fact, drawn to the United States and, increasingly, to other English-speaking countries.

The issue of student exposure is compounded by the fact that many - maybe more than half - of the students and postdocs leaving Germany for the United States never return.
Once they have experienced Harvard, they may no longer find Heidelberg attractive. This could have any number of reasons, from personal (American wife, children in school) to financial (Harvard pays better) to professional (working conditions in particular).
Is that a loss for Germany - a brain drain to be plugged? German policy-makers (contemplating, for instance, the dearth of Nobel Prizes won by Germans in Germany) believe that to be the case: another reason for wanting to set up a German Harvard. Germany is now trying hard to persuade its students-turned-professionals to return home, which is no easy undertaking, given the rigidities of the German system and the attractions of American academia and business. It is also seeking to lure young top-level scholars from other countries (including from the United States) in an effort to establish a much needed brain-gain. That has proven to be difficult because of the complexities of German immigration laws, which were changed only recently. Of course, German brains in the United States are not a total loss for Germany, even while they constitute a significant gain for the United States.

Not only do their achieve-ments eventually benefit more than just Americans, they also serve as an important reservoir of expertise and good-will regarding Germany. For the United States, the 572,509 foreign students (and many more foreign scholars) are an important source of strength. They contribute an estimated 13 billion dollars to the American economy, help to maintain teaching standards and provide a critical supply of skills (especially in science and engineering). Thus, the post-9/11 decline in international student enrollments has set off alarm bells. International applications to American graduate schools have declined by 28 percent for the current school year, actual enrollment by six percent.

A shrinking applicant pool may result in a larger percentage of students accepted who are insufficiently qualified. The reasons for this development seem manifold, including more stringent visa requirements, relentlessly increasing tuition rates, concerns about life in post-9/11, George W. Bush America and competition from other English-speaking countries. American educators worry not only about the dangers of losing income and skills, but also about a decline in international exposure of American students and about a reduction in the number of foreigners well-versed in things American - at a time when anti-Americanism around the world has increased tremendously. As a result, significant pressure is being put on the government to ease visa procedures. International recruitment efforts have also been stepped up. Expectations are high that the erosion of international student enrollments can be stopped. Germany's problems will be solved less easily. Heidelberg's struggles endure.

- Gebhard Schweigler began his studies in political science at the University of Heidelberg and obtained a Ph.D. from Harvard. He is professor of international relations and national security strategy at the National War College in Washington, DC.