17 June 1999

"We need an elite"

Rector Juergen Siebke interviewed by Klaus Welzel of Heidelberg's Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung newspaper ("RNZ" in the following) on planned reforms in higher education and the Rector's criticisms of Baden-Wuerttemberg's higher education and research minister Klaus von Trotha

Rector Prof. Siebke

RNZ: Professor Siebke, for weeks now a clash of views has been raging between yourself and Baden-Wuerttemberg's minister of higher education and research, Klaus von Trotha. The point at issue is the implementation of the planned reforms in higher education. Has there been any agreement behind the scenes in the meantime?

Siebke: I don't know whether you can call it a clash of views. But there are certainly points on which the research minister and I do not see eye to eye. In mid April Herr von Trotha presented the draft law at a press conference and made a number of comments. One of them was that Baden-Wuerttemberg's standing conference of university rectors had been observing the progress of higher education reform with considerable benevolence. This is not my opinion at all. Since November we rectors have been engaged in talks with the ministry of higher education and research, making suggestions and indicating our rejection of certain points. Calling that benevolent observation of the ongoing process seems to me to be exaggerating rather. The minister has not changed his position one iota since mid April, as one can see from the fact that when he came to Heidelberg to discuss the draft law with the University Senate he defended it precisely as it stood and neither accepted any of our criticisms nor gave any indication that they might prompt him to modify the law in any way.

RNZ: The central bone of contention in all this is the institution of a University Council made up of seven members of the University and six people from outside. What don't you like about that?

Siebke: The first thing is that I don't see why a body that has proved its worth should be abolished. The existing Administrative Council had representatives from all sectors of the University. There was no question of its members being in any way closely affiliated with the Faculties or departments. It made its decisions competently and objectively.
The second idea I dislike is that of establishing hierarchic structures of the kind you find in a business enterprise. Actually, the University Council as envisaged at the moment would have more far-reaching powers than a typical supervisory board. Instead of being a body with an exclusively monitoring function it would be invested with decision-making powers, extending for example to resolutions on the University's structure and development plans and decisions on the deployment of research and teaching resources. Further, proposals for the formation and modification of university institutions would have to be submitted to it for approval and it would have the right to decide on job descriptions for professorial posts.
The third point is that, while I fully accept the necessity of the University drawing on external expertise, I also feel that in the past Heidelberg University has done precisely that wherever it saw the need. One striking example was the discussion about the reorientation of the Faculty of Pharmacy. That's why I've always said we should call in outside experts to supplement the Administrative Council. But now we're talking about a body with seven internal and six external members, with four of the latter appointed by the higher education minister and an external member as chairman. What's more, a member of the ministry has the right to attend all the meetings of the University Council, albeit without the right to vote.

RNZ: In other words you fear greater influence of a political nature.

Siebke: Let me put it this way. I anticipate an element of external influence that might be taken advantage of for political purposes. In no way do I suggest that the present minister has any intentions in that direction. But some day the constellation will be a different one. Future research ministers might elect to exploit the situation. Hence my proposal is to admit external members by all means but not on this scale. And the University decides who gets admitted.

RNZ: What walks of life will the external members be recruited from? Will they be mostly from business and industry?

Siebke: The University will nominate external members with management experience who take an interest in the University.

RNZ: The crucial point is surely what interest group the University Council member in question represents?

Siebke: We don't want people who represent interest groups but people who represent the University. That is what makes the selection of external members such an important matter.

RNZ: But the University would still have a 7 to 6 majority.

Siebke: True, but I see no reason to assume that the internal members would always be unanimous in their opinions.

RNZ: Taking your criticisms all in all, one might gain the impression that the real point at issue is the preservation of traditional professorial privileges.

Siebke: What privileges do you mean exactly?

RNZ: The planned reform will after all impose restrictions on existing decision-making powers.

Siebke: It's not a question of restricting decision-making powers. Four members appointed by the ministry represent an element of extraneous influence. I fail to see why it is a privilege for the University to run its own affairs.

RNZ: Minister von Trotha is effusive in his praise for the University of Mannheim. Why are they prepared to implement things that you are critical of?

Siebke: First of all, we too have been implementing reforms. For two years the pilot project "Impulse" has been under way, transferring decision-making powers - not least of a financial nature - down to department level. Rector Frankenberg and his university have a different approach to reform, which is fine. But the minister's commendations for Mannheim have largely to do with the fact that what they intend doing there is very much in line with the plans for a new Baden-Wuerttemberg University Law.

RNZ: But how come Mannheim can do that and Heidelberg can't?

Siebke: Because Heidelberg sees no reason to. Heidelberg is a university with 15 Faculties, an admittedly traditional university structure with the whole gamut of arts, humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, including small departments with a worldwide reputation for excellence. A university like that has to be run in an entirely different way from a much smaller university concentrating on economics, information science and law and with hardly anything in the way of liberal arts subjects. A university with 10,500 students calls for a different style of management from a university with 25,000 students. Universities should be granted the autonomy to run themselves as they see fit. When the minister says "more external expertise" I say fine, but the way to do it is to extend the Administrative Council.

RNZ: On the subject of study fees, you say they should be introduced from the word go with assistance for impecunious gifted students.

Siebke: Looking at the Law on Higher Education as a whole, all I can say is that it is obviously modeled on the American system. Given that Heidelberg is strong on research and research-oriented teaching it has to be able to compare with research-oriented universities in the United States. But there the parameters are very different indeed: study fees and student selection are the normal case.

RNZ: But that would mean rejecting a large number of would-be students for lack of aptitude.

Siebke: Not necessarily. The point is that we need a more differentiated system of education in the tertiary sector. Looking to America again, we have there the top ten universities dominating the picture. Then there are lots of universities with less of an emphasis on research, all the way down to the colleges. I agree that Germany should step up the practical orientation in the tertiary sector. But that is not the job of the universities. I see their main task as being not only applied research but above all basic research, the kind that sometimes takes 10 to 15 years before it bears practical fruit. The task of a university is not to communicate vocational skills but to equip people with what it takes to embark on a professional career.

RNZ: But then we're not very far away from the idea of an elite university.

Siebke: We in Germany shouldn't be so embarrassed about admitting that we need a form of higher education that produces elites. If you interpret my remarks about a more strongly differentiated education system in the tertiary sector as implying that, then you're absolutely right. The idea of an elite is implicit in the idea of differentiation.

RNZ: But for the moment the elite university is surely a long way off.

Siebke: I don't agree. Take the present rector of Erfurt University, Peter Glotz, a prominent Social Democrat. He said it himself in no uncertain terms: we need an elite.

For further information please contact:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Universitaet Heidelberg
Pressesprecher / Public Information Officer
Postfach 105760
D-69047 Heidelberg
Germany

phone +49 6221 542310, fax +49 6221 542317
e-mail: michael.schwarz@rektorat.uni-heidelberg.de
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