Dr. Josef Lange

Secretary General of Hochschulrektorenkonferenz


The Role of Universities towards the 21st Century – Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy in Responsibility for the Society

I. Framework Conditions for Higher Education Institutions in Germany

Global competition is characterizing the economic development, the development in research and technology and, as a consequence, the development in higher education institutions, especially universities, as well. In order to define the role of universities in the 21st century it is useful to give an outlook on to the surrounding of the institutional development of universities.


1. Economic Development

  • Stock markets react on economic and political events world-wide within hours.
  • Global-player companies are moving their plants according to suitable surroundings concerning location, labour force, financial and fiscal conditions.
  • Research and development in globally acting companies are also lacated according to the best surroundings like location, cooperation with the universities and research institutes, human potential for research and development, salaries of the labour force and legal conditions for new technologies.


2. Scientific Developments

In the so-called new fields like computer sciences, microelectronics, biotechnology, material sciences and neurosciences the distance beween research and development on the one hand and production on the other hand is becoming shorter and shorter. The life cycles of products, especially in the field of computing, overtake the human abilities of adaptation to new generations of computers for instance, and at least sometimes also the financial potential of small and medium-sized enterprises. The distribution of R&D in global-player companies is a world-wide distribution. This has become possible according to the development of information and communication technology which enables world-wide companies' communication within seconds. Thus, research, development and production are working within world-wide networks. The fact that three major Germany-based international companies concentrated the majority of their software production in Bangalore/India within the last three years demonstrates in one focus the consequences of globalization in this field.


3. Demographic Changes

The numbers of first-year students in engineering and natural sciences, especially physics and chemistry, in German higher education institutions have decreased since the beginning of the nineties and today down to 40 percent. The derease is based on at least two developments: the economic and labour market development and the demographic development. The development of the births numbers in Germany since 1950 demonstrates that the birth rate in the former German Democratic Republic in east Germany moved around 300.000 between 1950 and 1963 and then decreased down to around 180.000 in the middle of the seventies (1973/1975). After an increase up to 245.000 in 1980 the development between 1987 with 216.000 and the middle of the nineties with around 80.000 births shows a tremendous decrease down to 40 percent. In West Germany the numbers increased from around 800.000 between 1950 and 1953 up to 1,06 million in 1964 followed by a sharp decrease between 1965 and 1978 down to 576.500. Until 1990 the numbers raised up to around 727.000 births. The consequence of these developments in one sentence: Germany has or is an ageing society.


4. Development of Public Budgets in Germany

Since the beginning of the nineties a huge annual transfer of public funding from the Western to the Eastern part of Germany takes place. This is a consequence of the unification of the former two states in Germany on October 3, 1990 in order to cope with the consequences of around 40 years of a centrally planned and managed economy and society and to raise at least the public infrastructure of the six East-German Federal States to a level comparable with West Germany. The transfer with an annual amount of around 150 billion DM is one, but by far not the only reason for the development of deficits in public budgets in Germany. The consequences for Germany to fulfill the criteria for introducing the common European currency EURO at the beginning of 1999 are well known not only in this country.

Problems in public budgets directly influence the development of higher education institutions in this country due to the fact that around 80 percent of all German higher education institutions are state-funded, state-owned and state-financed institutions. In these institutions aound 98 percent of all students in Germany are enrolled. In the around 20 percent private higher education institutions, roughly half of them funded, owned and financed by the churches, partly with public subsidies, only two percent of students and three percent of first-year students in Germany are enrolled. Insofar the higher education system in Germany is a state-funded, state-owned and state-financed system.


5. Sustainable Development

Yale Professor Paul Kennedy underlined in his book 'Preparing the 21st century' already before this became a topic of broad political discussion in highly industrialized countries the problems and risks of our natural surroundings, our environment. For the survival of human kind societies have to develop a different culture of using nature and environment as resouces for industry in order to reach a sustainable development. the consequences of industrialization for the living of the next generations are obvious in Germany and all over Europe. Therefore it is not only necessary to develop new kinds of industry to cope with consequences of traditional industries, but also to develop new kind of behaviour in using natural resources. The problems of air pollution and climate changes give only one, but a dramatic example for the importance of sustainable development.

Demographic changes, the development of public budgets and sustainable development - these are at least three major tasks and responsibilities for the young generation not only, but especially in Germany. They concern universities and higher education institutions as well.


II. Development of Higher Education Institutions in Germany

1. Quantitative Development

Germany has an overall population of 82 million inhabitants. Around one third of an age group is studying in higher education institutions: 1,8 million students in higher education institutions and around 280.000 first-year students in 1996. The number of first-year students will increase within the next ten years by around 25 percent at least according to a prognosis of the Federal States' Ministers responsible for educatin, higher education and culture based on the development of student numbers in secondary schools.

As the political and economic system in the former GDR was a centrally planned one, the development of first-year student numbers in higher education institutions was stabilized at a level of around 32.000 per year or 13 to 15 percent of an age group since the end of the sixties till the end of the GDR in 1990. Since then major changes occured according to the development in West Germany. Within the next five to eight years the percentage of an age group entering higher education institutions will be comparable all over Germany at around one third.

The quantitative development of the West German higher education system during the last 20 years is characterized by expansion of student numbers but comparably only small increases in the figures concerning scientific staff and study places in higher education institutions.

The numbers of first year students expanded from 159.000 in 1977 to 218.000 in 1997, the number of students from 913.000 to 1.600.000 whereas the figures of scientific staff positions increased in the same period from 63.000 to 69.000, the number of study places from 726.000 to 866.000, but the number of final examinations from 120.000 to 211.000 from 1977 to 1997.

Looking at the percentages of the development in West Germany during these 20 years: there was an increase of 38 percent in the number of first-year students, of 35 percent in the number of students, of 10 percent in the number of scientific staff positions, of 19 percent in the number of study places and of 75 percent in the number of final examinations. The financing of higher education institutions including students' grants and loans as part of the gross domestic product declined from 1,32 percent in 1995 down to 0,83 percent in 1995, this is a decline of 38 percent. The investment per student per year increased in nominal figures from 11.000 DM in 1980 to 11.900 DM in 1995, what is in real figures - without inflation rate - a cutback of around one third.

These figures demonstrate that higher education institutions in Germany solved their tasks with growing effectiveness and efficiency.


2. Insitutional Diversification

The institutional development is characterized by institutional differentiation and diversification expecially between universities and Fachhhochschulen.

Universities are defined as research-oriented institutions of higher education realizing according to Wilhelm von Humboldt the unity of research and teaching. They are those institutions of higher education which - as a system - enclose all fields of knowledge and science.

Fachhochschulen are comparable with the former Polytechnics in the United Kingdom; according to a recommendation of the HRK they should be translated into English as 'Universities of Applied Sciences'. They are practice- and teaching-oriented institutions awarding academic degrees after 3,5- to 4-year courses leading to the diploma which is comparable to a Bachelor hounours of UK or a Bachelor with thesis of US universities. Fachhochschulen - Universities of Applied Sciences - concentrate in three main sectors: around two third of all engineers in Germany, around half of all graduates in business administration and economics and around 80 percent of all graduates in social sciences and social work are graduates of Fachhochschulen.

The new framework law for higher education passed by the Bundestag this week, rejected by the Bundesrat, entitles universities and Fachhochschulen - Universities of Applied Sciences - to introduce new courses leading to the Bachelor's and Master's degree. An accreditation of these courses by an independent accreditation agency is being prepared in a common working group of the Kultusminsterkonferenz and the Hochschulrektorenkonferenz. To avoid misunderstandings it is worthwhile to mention that the Bachelor's degree will always be a Bachelor with Thesis.

The right to award the doctor's degree is - in Germany - the exclusive right of universities in spite of the fact that many Ph.D. theses are prepared in research institutions outside the univerities like Max Planck and Fraunhofer Institutes.


III. The Role of Modern Universities

How do universities - I use the term university in a broad sense, including universities and Fachhochschulen - Universities of Applied Sciences - as well as colleges of music and fine art - react to the challenges in economy and society? The institutional and quantitative development of the last 25 years is - according to my opinion - not covered by the traditional definition of a university as an institution combining research and teaching.

The generation of knowledge and science is a dynamic process. Therefore the tasks of a modern university are not to be seen as a definite set, but have to cover various fields.

The main challenges of the future are to ensure quality in spite of narrow public budgets, which include narrow budgets of higher education institutions in a state-owned, state-run and state-financed higher education system, to realize more efficiency in dealing with taxpayer's money, to contribute to the development of knowledge and science in world-wide competiion and cooperation in all fields including humaities and social sciences.


1. Teaching and Study

Around 85 percent of all students of German higher education institutions, who represent one third of an age group, are interested in solid, science-based education and training for the labour market. Around 10 to 15 percent are interested in research as a profession.

Universities have to answer to these requirements of the young generation concerning profession-oriented training. They have to answer as well to the requirements of those students interested in knowledge and science as such. Therefore universities have to present courses leading to diversified degrees - profession-oriented and knowledge-oriented - in a university system characterized by institutional diversification. The globalization of economy and science requires the introduction of courses leading to B.A.- or M.A.-degrees, those being the world leading currency of academic degrees.


2. Research and Development

Universities are the major place for knowledge production in the broad sense of all disciplines. They are part of the cultural heritage. Looking at some quantitative indicators universities in Germany represent around one fifth of the overall expenses for research and development. This is slightly more than all publicly funded private, non-profit research institutions outside the universities. Universities include as a system all fields of knowledge and science and insofar enable their members to use the institutional framework for trans- and interdisciplinary cooperation. Research and development in universities covers the whole range of knowledge production from so-called pure or basic or curiosity-driven research to applied research or solving of practical problems of business enterprises.


3. Education and Training of Young Researchers

One of the major tasks in the future is education and training of young researchers because universities produce the next generation of researchers and academics in all fields. As new fields of knowledge arise and expand at the borderlines of traditional scientific disciplines, universities have to organize education and training of young academics in a way that combines a strong disciplinary basis with interdisciplinary work. This is the reason why - based on recommendations of the Science Council - the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft is financing slightly more than 300 Graduiertenkollegs in German universities. In these institutionalized graduate schools, which are established under the responsibility of the university as an institution, not only under the responibility of an individual department, and which include academics of reseach institutes outside the universities, formal doctoral studies are combined with the traditional individual work of preparing an Ph.D. thesis. The President of the Max Planck Society, Hubert Markl, has asked the Max Planck Institutes at the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the society in February this year to become themselves more committed in the field of education and training of young scientists and to assist universities in fulfilling this task by cooperation expecially in - as he called it - international graduate schools. Universities and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft as well are interested to open up Graduiertenkollegs to international cooperation. Science and knowledge as well as training of young academics develop in international cooperation and competition. The Confederation of European Union Rectors' Conferences recommended in March 1996 to establish European Graduate Schools in universities and to finance those centers of excellence within the framework program on research and technological development of the European Union.


4. Continuing Academic Education

Due to the globalization and the fast development, the acceleration of knowledge production in research and development, teaching and study for a first degree are only the basis for lifelong learning or continuing academic education. Universities and higher education institutions have - as part of their service to the society - the task to improve the abilities of graduates of higher education institutions or qualified professionals by continuing education. There are some recent examples for cooperation between large companies and Fachhochschulen - Universities of Applied Sciences -, but also universities in order to train and retrain people from the labour market. Universities have to realize that because of this task the number of non-traditional students will increase. Universities have to offer specific programs to those students who ask not only for a variety of courses and programs in order to specialize or to be informed on the latest developments in narrow scientific fields but also for broad information and training combining various scientific fields due to the fact that problems do not arise according to the borders of traditional scientific disciplines.


5. Services to the Society

Traditional German universities offer their services to the society in all university hospitals being not only insitutions of research and study but places of health care and patient treatment. The development in all fields of knowledge and science, the development of the society in industrialized countries, the development of knowledge and science having become the main factor of innovation and production besides capital investment and workforce have underlined the role of universities as partners of industry and society especially in the field of transfer of knowledge and technology in the broadest sense.

Universities have to play their role as centers of innovation in their individual region in cooperation with research institutes outside universities and industry. Especially in the so-called new technologies like biotechnology, material sciences, microelectronics and computer science but as well in humanities and social sciences dealing with the main questions in changing societies, which are influenced by the globalization not only of economy, but also of information and culture, by tensions between global influences and regional cultural identity, it is obvious that universities serve in a very specific way to the society. Their role in society is changing from being a treasure of knowledge to a leading actor of innovation and change.


IV. The Future of Universities

A science-based society requires more and more high-qualified graduates prepared to solve problems by using scientific methods. In times of globalization of knowledge and science, economy and society, universities as institutions are part of the cultural heritage of a country. They develop, expand and transfer knowledge. They have to be engaged not only in narrow, specialized fields, but in a broad sense including humanities and social sciences in order to avoid the announced 'clash of civilizations' (Samual P. Huntington) and to cope with challenges of the society and the young generation described above. Universities as scientific institutions have to ensure a frame for individual academics to enable them to fulfill their academic tasks as far as possible. If the development of knowledge and science is described as expectation of the unexpected, universities have to serve for adequate conditions for thinking and working of academics and students as scientific work is done by individuals and teams.

Universities are acting insofar in a tension between freedom and responsibility of the individual academic on the one hand and institutional autonomy in a state-owned, state-run and state-financed system of higher education and research, where the freedom of science (in a broad sense) and fine arts is guaranteed in the constitution (Article 5 Paragraph 3 of the German constitution), on the other hand.

Defining the tasks of universities as teaching and study, research and development, education and training of young academics, continuing academic education and services to the society, the future of universities will be determined by three major developments:


1. Individuality and Cooperation

The development of universities will be determined by more individuality. Universities have to diversify and to develop specific individual profiles due to the fact that developments in different disciplines and the costs of research and development as well as of education and training will lead to a necessity of concentration. Regarding these tendencies, no university will be able to cover all fields in research and teaching at an internationally competitive level. Therefore competition between universities as institutions will become more intensive as a competition for the best academics, the best students, academic reputation, public and private funds. Nevertheless, universities are not only responsible for their own development according to their institutional individualism but as a system in a given country - in Germany of even Europe, looking at the development of the European Union - also for the overall development of knowledge and science and the chances of the young generation requesting education and teaching. Insofar universities have to cooperate, especially in specific regions, in order to optimize the range of courses for students and the cooperation in the other fields of university tasks as defined above.


2. Specialization and Interdisciplinarity

Concentration on strengths in research and teaching and the development of individual profiles of universities require specialization on the one hand and interdisciplinarity on the other hand. 'Specialiazation will be inevitable' is one of the famous sentences of the famous German economist and social scientist Max Weber at the beginning of this century. Due to the new developments, the new fields of research and development arising on the borderlines of or between traditional disciplines in all fields of knowledge and science - from biology and brain research to humanities as well as cultural and social sciences - cooperation between disciplines will more and more influence the development of research and study.


3. Internationality and Regional Responsibility

The future of universities will be determined by internationality in all fields and tasks, requiring mobility of students and staff including administrative staff. Science and knowledge are oriented to international competition and standards. Academics in a given field compete in creating new knowledge, in expanding the borders of the discipline, in setting up hypotheses and theories and in their verification of falsification. Results of research are published in world-wide known and quoted journals, a tendency being strenghthened by science citation index, impact factors and the various types of measuring results and output of the scientific process. As a consequence which is forstered by the development of multimedia-communication academics work together with partners allover the world, this cooperation being a solid basis for institutional cooperation.

On the other hand the rapid developments in the labour market, the changes in society and the complexity of problems to be solved in community require answers based on well-known scientific methods and results. The local and regional needs ask for assistance in higher education institutions looked at as think-tanks not only in order to generate new knowledge but to be helpful in the given community or region. This is most important in university systems which are devined as state higher education systems financed as part of public infrastructure with tax-payers' money. But universities of course have to solve regional problems not with provincial methods but with proposals according to the 'state of the art' in the required disciplines.


V. Strategic Development Planning

Universities are - as mentioned - not only institutions of teaching and study but also of research and development. Concerning the strategic development in research organization in universities it is necessary to look at three levels in research: the individual academic, the institute or the department and the university as institution. Research is done by academics in international competition for reputation and of course for public funds or research funds from whatever source. Diversification and concentration in research within and between universities due to the development of disciplines and the cost of research will lead to individual profiles of universities in research by setting priorities. Every university has to concentrate in certain fields. Without additional funds the consequence will be to set up posteriorities. this is a challenge for university mangement. Therefore universities need institutional strategic planning for research. Universities have to realize the globalization of science and knowledge as well as of economy and labour market in order to meet their responsibility for the young generation and the future development of science-based societies in the 21st century.

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