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Federations Magazine Article
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Rapid Changes in Three Countries

Rapid Changes in Three Countries BY Richard Van Loon AND Adrie Dassen

Of the post-secondary education systems in
federal countries around the world, Germany’s may
be changing the most rapidly. Roughly 2 million of
Germany’s 82 million people currently enrol in postsecondary
education programs at either universities
or Fachhochschulen (vocational and technical
colleges). Two-thirds of these students enrol in 121 universities
and equivalent institutions; 197 Fachhochschulen enrol the
remaining one-third of students. Germany also has a highly
regarded and extensive system of apprenticeship training. The
German approach was often characterized as being highly conservative.
The system is now undergoing a radical
transformation in the face of globalization and other pressures.
Until very recently the German university system had been,
by intention, highly homogeneous – so much so that graduates
did not, and for the most part still do not, identify themselves as
coming from a particular institution. All five-year degrees were
assumed to be equivalent and all institutions were assumed to
be essentially equal. Under the Basic Law – German’s constitution
after the Second World War – education was supposed to
be under the jurisdiction of the Länder, the equivalent of states
or provinces, but the inclination towards having a nationally
homogeneous system was sufficiently strong that by 1948 a
national council had been formed to coordinate post-secondary
policies. Federal framework legislation under the Basic Law
followed, setting standards and defining practices that the
Länder would be responsible for implementing with some
degree of flexibility. Even faculty salaries were uniform across
Germany, established by the federal government.
The Länder Pay for Instruction
In Germany, funding of instruction is primarily a Länder
responsibility, but most research is funded by the federal government.
While individual research grants are carefully
evaluated and controlled by scientific committees, the working
assumption is that universities are largely equal in their
research capacities.
The German system, which assumed that all universities
were essentially equal, could not easily comply with the
Bologna Declaration, which aims to greatly standardize degrees,
course credits and quality assurance standards throughout
Europe. Instead, the German tradition was to give every school
or department a say regarding qualifications obtained at
another institution. Germany was also out of step with the
notion in many countries that some universities should be
allowed or encouraged to develop as centres of recognized
international excellence in research and graduate education.
Nor did it particularly value competition among institutions.
This has led to fears that Germany would be disadvantaged in
the highly competitive global economic environment.
All of this changed in the
fall of 2006 through major
amendments to the Basic
Law that fundamentally
altered the relationship
between the German federal
and Länder governments
with respect to post-secondary
education. The driving force for these reforms was the
desire to achieve a measure of constitutional disentanglement
between the two orders of government. There was a trade-off
that transferred significant policy authority to the Länder, in
return for a reduction in their capacity to veto federal legislation.
The Länder then took responsibility for policies and
legislation with regard to post-secondary education, provided
these were consistent with the Bologna Declaration. As a result,
the traditional German five-year undergraduate degree will be
replaced, by 2010, by a four-year undergraduate degree with a
master’s degree as the standard second level of achievement.
Change is in the air for Germany, Switzerland and Belgium as these three
European federal countries adapt to new demands of higher education

Germany Charges Tuition for the First Time
These changes will affect the financing of institutions in fundamental
ways. To allow for greater variation, some institutions
will be chosen as centres of excellence and thus be eligible for
enhanced research funding, most of which will continue to be
provided by the federal government. Another traditional equalizing
force in German higher education – not charging tuition
fees – will also likely disappear. Tuition fees have begun to be
charged in some Länder (typically at the level of 500 Euros per
term) and it seems that these are likely to rise to the 3,000 Euro
level across Germany over the next decade.
All of this constitutes a revolution that is motivated by the
forces of international competition and, presumably, also by a
desire to decentralize and make the whole German federal system
more flexible.
Students, who will be paying higher tuition fees, will certainly
see a change and graduates will arrive on the market with
qualifications different, at least on paper, from their predecessors.
The poorer Länder will have more difficulty financing their
institutions at the same level as the richer ones, and that could
lead to greater regional differentiation in economic development,
perhaps in exchange for a higher level of national
economic growth in the long run. Whether the system will be
better or worse in a decade or more is unpredictable – and the
outcome will depend partly on the relative importance placed
on equity versus competition-driven excellence – but it will
most certainly be different.

Switzerland Spends More Per Student
The post-secondary education system in the swiss
federation is often characterized as highly decentralized.
Historically, its pattern of managing higher
education also fits this description. Recent constitutional
changes have affected higher education and,
although they were instigated by the Cantons, paradoxically
they may have the potential to increase the influence of
the federal (referred to as central) government in this area. What
is clear is that these governmental changes will likely increase
institutional autonomy and management responsibilities.
In 2004-2005 about 200,000 of Switzerland’s 7.5 million
inhabitants were enrolled in higher education, with about twothirds
of these in universities and the remaining one-third in
higher vocational institutes. Ten universities are governed by
cantonal legislation and supported financially by the cantons
and there are two federal institutes of technology supported by
the central government. The central government is the primary
funder of university-based research, but funds only about oneeighth
of teaching costs. Mobility of students is encouraged by
inter-cantonal transfers to reflect the cost differentials of students
studying away from their home area.
Swiss financial support of universities is the highest per student
among oecd countries, now amounting to about us$25,000
per year. Almost all of this spending is paid for from public sources
– 1.6 percent of gdp, with the result that Switzerland has one of the
highest public commitments to post-secondary education in the
world. This is the result of the relatively small size of the system
and low tuition fees, meaning that more funds must come from
public sources to pay the freight.
Bologna Declaration Transforms Europe
Occasional attempts by the federal government to exercise
greater influence over higher education have been impeded by
divided responsibilities within the federal government, with
two departments having a role in supporting higher education
and research. There has been some debate about whether the
divided jurisdiction within the federal government created
more complications than were caused by having 26 cantons
dealing with higher education in a small country.
Switzerland is a signatory to the Bologna Declaration, which
aims to greatly standardize degrees, course credits and quality
assurance standards throughout Europe and has had a transformative
effect on post-secondary education in Europe. It
appears that the ongoing process of bringing the Swiss system
into compliance with the Bologna stipulations and the dictates
of the increasing globalization of higher education have led the
Swiss cantonal governments toward increased levels of co-operation
and integration of their university systems. To encourage greater levels of co-operation at all levels of education, the cantons
proposed a constitutional amendment that was passed in
May 2006 which is likely to have a significant impact on the way
Swiss governments approach higher education.
The new constitution recognizes a “Swiss Learning Area”
and enjoins the central government and the cantons to “co-ordinate
their efforts and ensure their co-operation through joint
administrative bodies and other measures” at all levels of education.
And although residual powers in Switzerland belong to
the cantons, Article 63a declares the cantons and the central
government “jointly responsible for the co-ordination and
guarantee of quality in the Swiss university education”. It further
obliges the cantons and the central government to enter into
agreements and to delegate “certain powers” to joint administrative
bodies. Finally, it provides that if the central government
and the cantons fail to reach their common goals by means of
co-ordination, the central government “shall issue regulations
on levels of studies and the transition from one level to another,
on postgraduate education and on the recognition of institutions
and qualifications…”
Since the constitutional amendment is recent, there is no
agreement yet on which powers should be delegated to the
joint bodies and, while there is a long history of inter-cantonal
co-operation in Switzerland, this clause potentially gives the
federal government a more powerful hand in regulating the
system. It is interesting to see the highly decentralized Swiss
system and the highly centralized German system both potentially
mutating toward each other, driven by strong external
forces. It is equally interesting to note that both countries have
been able to use constitutional amendments to bring about the
changes. As all who toil in the various fields of federal government
know, constitutional amendments require a high degree
of co-operation between the two orders of government and
Germany and Switzerland have considered higher education
sufficiently important that they have been able to muster this
degree of co-operation.

Belgium’s Communities Make Changes
In the past, belgian society was characterized by
three cleavages. On the socio-economic front, labour
and capital faced each other. The Dutch-speaking
Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons fought a
bitter linguistic conflict. Ideologically, Roman Catholics
on the one side and liberals and socialists on the other,
disagreed strongly. These cleavages also divided the political
landscape in Belgium.
In the 1950s a major ideological conflict threatened the functioning
of the Belgian political system. Catholics on the one
hand and liberals and socialists on the other hand fought bitterly
over the financing of Catholic education and the control
over state education. Between 1950 and 1954, the Christian
democratic government outlined a financial system that was
very favourable for Catholic schools and universities. Moreover,
the Christian democrats tried to get a grip on the ideological
neutral education organized by the state. However, in 1954
socialists and liberals won the national elections and formed a
coalition government that reversed the decisions of its predecessor.
After a stalemate in the 1958 parliamentary elections,
Catholic, socialist and liberal politicians decided to make a
compromise, the so-called “School Pact.” This pact became a
law that guaranteed state financing of Catholic education and
the ideologically neutral position of state education.
Three National Divides Fuse into One
The three oppositions that fragmented Belgian social and political
life converged gradually into two opposite poles: Flanders
and Wallonia. This convergence of the three cleavages made it
possible to solve the problems by means of regionalization and
federalization. This reform process, which started in the 1960s,
jerked along over a period of more than 20 years. Finally, in 1988-
1989 a constitutional reform changed Belgium from a unitary to a
federal country that is composed of three communities: Wallonia,
Flanders and Brussels. Communities – the language-based constituent
units – have authority in so-called “person-related”
affairs, such as culture, education, national and international
cooperation and of course linguistic affairs. Regions – the geographic
constituent units – have authority in so-called
“soil-related” affairs, such as physical planning and environmental
affairs. The communities were given power over education.
The financing of both universities and vocational institutions
is also a matter for the communities. Predominantly
lump-sum financing occurs in both the Flemish and the
Wallonia communities, but this is about to change. The Flemish
government has proposed a new law on funding which will
consist of four elements: a fixed basic level of funding, incentive
funds for specific policy priorities, a teaching-related variable
part and a research-related variable part. The teaching-relatedvariable
part is based on four criteria: number of new entrants
(bachelor’s degree level), number of new entrants (master’s degree level), credits achieved, and the number of degrees
awarded. Thirty-five per cent of the funding for universities
goes to research and 65 per cent goes to teaching. The total budget
is open-ended for universities and fixed for Hogescholen
(the vocational, professional and technical colleges). This new
law should be fully implemented by January 2008. No proposals
to change the law on funding have yet been put forward for
the Community of Wallonia.
Communities Give Grants to Students
In Belgium, public sector financial support for students also is
arranged at the community level. Both in Flanders and
Wallonia, tuition fees are modest and additional support for
students is available. The grant system for students is an important
means of promoting access to higher education.
In Flanders, increasing attention is paid to the role of rankings
and accreditation in students’ choice for universities and
Hogescholen. In 2006, a few programs received accreditation
and the Flemish government aims to have all programs
reviewed by the accreditation committee as soon as possible.
Additionally, the Flemish Ministry is participating in a pilot
project in which a multi-dimensional ranking system of bachelor’s
and master’s degree programs is developed. In this
project, in which Dutch higher education institutions are participating
as well, the methodology of the German system
ranking is used.
The Wallonia government in 2002 created an agency that is
responsible for the evaluation of quality in higher education.
However, until 2004, there was no official procedure to evaluate
the quality of higher education in the French community. Until
then, Universities and Hautes Ecoles (the vocational, professional
and technical colleges) had their own internal quality
assessment procedures. With the decree that is operational
since 2004, the newly created agency is fully responsible for
both quality assurance and accreditation.
The follow-up of the Bologna Declaration, which aims to
greatly standardize degrees, course credits and quality assurance
standards throughout Europe, has led in Flanders to a
new two-cycle system, replacing the traditional system. The old
one-cycle studies of the Hogescholen changed into a professional
bachelor’s degree and the two-cycle studies were
transformed into academic bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.
University studies were also transformed into academic
bachelors and masters. No professional master’s degrees are
foreseen at Hogescholen. For Wallonia, developments were
similar. The new system has been fully implemented, and since
2004, bachelor’s degrees have been awarded at both universities
and Hautes Ecoles for three-year programs. Master’s
degrees are awarded at most institutions by now as well, and
the Wallonia Government aims to finish the full implementation
of the two-cycle studies by the academic year 2007-2008.
Policies Converge in the Three Countries
The Bologna Declaration, the scarcity of public tax dollars and
the demands for more control are pulling Germany,
Switzerland and Belgium in the same direction. The changes in
each of these countries are likely to result in more similar
approaches to post-secondary education.