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News vom 02.02.2010

Higher education reform will only be successful, if science ministries are prepared to change too

Germany’s science ministries have delegated a great deal of authority and decision-making power to higher education institutions in recent years. This considerable level of higher education autonomy has brought with it a new but still changing relationship between the state and higher education institutions. Re-adjustment to the new situation has brought about drastic change within higher education institutions (e.g. in relation to steering instruments and governance structures). This profound and comprehensive higher education reform has so far only been followed by partial reform of the regional science ministries as the “counterpart” to higher education institutions.

A current CHE study shows that it is only possible to guarantee adequate steering of higher education development and achieve social or political goals if the partners on both sides (i.e. higher education institutions and ministries) support the intended reform logics and indeed ”live“ it.

According to the CHE, science ministries should now start or continue a self-reflection process in terms of what they do. CHE project manager Ulrich Müller said: “The ministries have been encouraging higher education institutions to stand on their own two feet in recent years. Now they are suffering in some areas from the ”empty nest” syndrome: when the children are fully grown, the parents also need to redefine themselves.” Science ministries must debate with and communicate to both the public and higher education institutions the responsibilities they will have in the future, at the same time ensuring general autonomy for higher education institutions. They should spell out the field of activities in which they want to play a role. Ministries are at different levels of advancement in the preliminary work of working out the roles they want to play. Some merely need to make existing regulations more explicit (e.g. the role as lawyer for the science and education sector within the government) while others need to initiate a more profound process.

New steering instruments in the relationship between ministries and higher education institutions such as target agreements, performance-orientated allocation of means or reporting duties when preparing the annual financial statements have become common practice in Germany. The CHE study shows, however, that these instruments only work if the science ministries observe some basic principles, e.g. adequate involvement of higher education institutions in the decision-making process and the highest possible level of transparency and reliability in agreements.

Finally, these changed tasks and new “role models” also require changes within the ministries themselves, mostly in the areas of organisation and human resources. A high percentage of employees with law degrees has been a traditional feature of science ministries. In order to be able to meet the new challenges more adequately, more effort should be made here to accept a somewhat broader range of qualifications. The science and education sector should also be made more accessible at various levels, thereby allowing people pursuing a career in administration to go for “second career options” in higher education management and other education-orientated institutions. Ulrich Müller said: “It is important that the various individual measures in the end lead to a genuinely aligned and individualised staff development situation that meets the changed skill requirements. One area that can be developed in particular is joint staff development among employees in the ministries and representatives of the higher education institutions.”

Numerous interviews with higher education experts and representatives of German and foreign science ministries were conducted on the basis of interview guidelines. Representatives from higher education management, science and education and administration gave feedback on the first draft in an international workshop (which also formed part of a project by the Bavarian business association - the Vereiningung der Bayerischen Wirtschaft e.V.).

Ideas for the new role of science ministries will be discussed with representatives from ministries and higher education institutions and illustrated by examples from Germany and abroad at the CHE symposium “Tomorrow’s science ministries – withdrawal or new tasks?” on 3rd and 4th February 2010 in Berlin.


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