Lilo Berg is senior editor at the Berliner Zeitung.
By Lilo Berg
A year after reunification, in 1991, I travelled to Dresden on behalf of my newspaper to report on the first post-unification Congress of German Psychologists. It was held at the Technische Universität, in a run-down institute building. The mood was excellent, the experts from the former East and West had much to discuss with each other, and everyone was amicably sitting together in the large lecture hall – until a huge pane of glass came crashing down from a side wall into the room. Fortunately no one was hurt, the shock was the worst of it; but that shock ran deep. “See,” joked one East German psychologist, “the GDR was so dilapidated, it would have fallen apart with or without the Wende.”
Twenty years later, Germany still has ramshackle university buildings. But they are in the West, not the East. Visiting a university campus in the ex-GDR today, you will see modern institutes and laboratories, and up-to-date libraries. And if you then take a look at maps of Germany indicating the locations of research institutions, you will find much larger blank areas in the western part of the country than in the East, which is for example home to more than a third of all non-university institutes – despite the fact that only a fifth of the population lives there.
The edifice is built, but its foundations are weak. This became especially apparent in the final round of the Excellence Competition among German universities. Only a few proposals from the East found favour with the evaluators. The coveted elite attribute was only awarded to universities in the West. A mere 2.3 percent of the 1.9 billion EUR in total funding went to the former East German states.
“Nowadays the ramshackle universities are in the West, not the East.”
“What does it take to set up a university of Harvard’s calibre?”, an American university founder is once said to have asked. The answer was: “Masses of money and a hundred years’ time.” East Germany has neither. The large-scale special funding programmes will be coming to an end over the next few years; then the universities will have to survive on their own. A fierce competition to estab lish their legitimacy will almost certainly ensue, as on the one hand there are fewer and fewer new students due to a significant drop in the birth rate after the Wende, and on the other hand many places lack large corporations with their demand for graduates and academic research collaborations. But they only go where there is a good academic infrastructure.
East Germany is in a bind. But it isn’t about to capitulate. In Jena for example, the university, non-university institutes and industry have been working closely together for years – numerous new jobs, e.g. in the optical industry, are the reward. And the city is doing everything it can to attract students from elsewhere to the “Tübingen of the East”. The arguments in its favour are obvious, and they apply to all the former East German states: excellent teaching, no course fees and an especially low cost of living. Greifswald, a small town on the Baltic coast, could become a mecca of the life sciences, according to the aims of a group of ambitious biologists and medical scientists. There are many gems, if only you look closely.
And finally, there’s Dresden. There too, everyone involved with research works hand-in-hand, and the federal state of Saxony offers reliable funding. A Saxon Silicon Valley has sprung up with thousands of new jobs; third-party funding flows abundantly, and the number of patents is reaching record heights.
Concentrating on intelligently chosen key areas, research collaborations, stable government funding – this is how success is spelled in the East. In view of the demographic change, new ideas will also be needed: more Englishlanguage degree courses to attract students from abroad, con tinuing education curricula for the adult population, but also consortia of regional innovators. Experiments are required; the fate of East Germany depends on the results.
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