'Undeveloping' education


By Will Firth

BERLIN — Forty years of divergent development have produced two very different social systems in Germany. The words "East" and "West" are still used widely because, although there is now only one state, major differences in psychology and everyday lifestyle are likely to persist for some time to come.

The planned restructuring of education along West German lines and the first steps at implementation have brought a clash of structures and values.

To begin with, East Germany's bloated, once party-faithful academic apparatus has been flung on a drastic slimming course. Uprooted and unemployed lecturers and research assistants are joining the army of unemployed from all sectors of the workforce.

Entire colleges and universities considered inappropriate by the new system are being disbanded or, as it's called here, "undeveloped". Mass student and staff campaigns are being waged to save numerous institutions, including East Berlin's humanities-oriented Humboldt University, due to be closed down because of its "unjustifiably high staff to student ratio". Actually, there are political motives too.

Nobody is denying that reforms are needed, argue the protesters, but totally disrupting the education of more than 10,000 students mid-degree is going too far. All these students would be forced to drop study, compete tooth and nail for a place at West Berlin's already jam-packed Free University or go searching for places in West German university cities with their serious accommodation crises and astronomical rents.

The student accommodation situation shows the big differences between West and East in microcosm. In East Germany, around 90% of students had rooms in student hostels and flats. The quality generally left a lot to be desired — it ranged from mediocre to miserable (eg damp, unheated and poorly furnished), and almost all rooms were/are shared. But students had a guaranteed roof over their heads and the bare essentials.

In West Germany, the majority of students rent on the open market and fork out a large slice of their monthly allowance. Those who don't have luck or well-lined pockets don't find anywhere to live. Full stop. Now many "Easties", as they are called here, are flung into the deep end of West Germany's "welfare-oriented market economy" (official euphemism).

The German equivalent of AUSTUDY is called "BAfäG". Many more students seem to get it than Australian students get AUSTUDY, but the amount is equally meagre, — rarely enough to live on. Working while studying is a normal feature of West German student life and adds to the new burdens on the once socially secure students from the East. Fortunately, the user-pays mentality has not yet made significant inroads on German education policy, so for the time being German students are spared these extra problems.

Under the old East German system, students who had a child during eceived a full year's deferral supported with 90% of the average national wage. Under the West German system, this is to be slashed down to a fixed monthly rate of 600 deutschmarks (about A$475) for the first half year and a yet smaller assets-tested rate for the six months following. This will have an impoverishing effect on student mothers and further erode women's potential for independence.

There are a lot of undoubtedly positive changes in the education sphere too, not to mention the more general benefits like the freedom to travel abroad and the availability of a wide range of consumables.

Compulsory subjects which were part of the regime's ideological regimentation have been dropped from the syllabus. The arrogant and domineering official youth organisation Free German Youth, which students were automatically considered members of, has been disbanded. The pedantic keeping of attendance records, common practice at most East German tertiary institutions, has been stopped.

In some respects, however, the changes are little more positive than what is being replaced. For example, the collective study tendencies of chaperoned, group oriented East German education are giving way to the hard-headed everyone-for-him/herself individualism of the West. Surely something in between would be better.

Students are now freed from the compulsory three-year arbitrary placement at the end of their studies. They are also "free" to end up unemployed, a fate previously reserved mainly for dissidents. The pressure now is to orient study and career to the myopic demands of the market. I