Brain Drain Troubles East’s Universities

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, October 8, 1992

By Ann Brocklehurst

Although the universities of Eastern Germany have ambitious plans for reform, delays in carrying out the changes have led to an atmosphere of insecurity in which many qualified students and faculty members are leaving for the West.
.
The main problem for most universities and colleges is complying with new laws that require them to advertise all faculty positions and rehire only those teachers who can prove themselves politically uncompromised as well as academically qualified. At almost every institution decisions about the fate of certain individuals have turned into campuswide controversies and worsened the already bitter divisions in the academic community.
.
At Humboldt University in East Berlin, the reform process drew to a virtual six-month halt after the rector, Heinrich Fink, was fired by the Berlin Senate on suspicion of having worked as an informer for the Stasi, the security police of the former East Germany. The university’s council was so polarized by the dismissal that it took them half a year to agree on a new president.
.
Humboldt University has permanently and officially filled only 10 percent of its planned 550 faculty positions. The new president, Marlis Dürkop, expects the hiring process to take up to two more years. “It’s an unbelievable amount of work to fairly judge the academic competence and political integrity of so many people,” she said in an interview.
.
WHILE Humboldt, thanks to its historical reputation and location in the German capital, can continue to attract students despite the confusion, other East German universities cannot. Students do not want to learn introductory economics from an instructor whose title changed overnight from Professor of Marxism-Leninism to Professor of Economic Theory and Policy. And, according to a study by the University of Cologne, one of five East German students is now choosing to enroll at universities and colleges in the West, a trend that is especially marked in areas near the former border where daily commuting is possible.
.
Qualified teachers are also leaving the East, tempted by higher salaries and offers of immediate job security abroad or in Western Germany. In Saxony, which educated 40 percent of East Germany’s engineers, the loss of staff from its highly respected technical colleges was one of the factors that pushed the state government to announce in August that it needed to fill 2,000 academic jobs in just three months.
.
Although preference is given to local candidates already in place, in such subjects as economics, law and history West Germans must be wooed to help design new curricula. While many Westerners have been keen to do a temporary stilt in the East, the universities are finding it difficult to attract applicants who want to stay.
.
East German universities are also expected to integrate and employ some 2,000 researchers who, in the Soviet academic tradition, worked at independent research institutes. Originally, the researchers were supposed to take up their new jobs by the end of this year, but the deadline has now been postponed until the end of 1993.
.
Also being revised are the figures for how much the entire renewal program will cost. The initial estimate was 2.4 billion Deutsche marks ($1.7 billion) over five years, but that was boosted by 667 million marks this summer. Some experts say 18 billion marks by the year 2000 is more reasonable, given that it would cost about 50 million marks per year just to stock academic libraries with all the important literature they have failed to acquire in the last 40 years.
.
Although money has been saved by the elimination of thousands of superfluous jobs and the closing down of entire institutions and schools, judged no longer necessary or viable, new universities have also been set up. In Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, on the Polish border, a university specializing in Slavic studies, and drawing part of its staff and student body from Poland, will open this month.
.
Despite all their problems, the Eastern universities have one very big advantage over their Western counterparts: They are not overcrowded. In the East, only 17 percent of 19- to 21-year-olds attended university or college, compared with 36 percent in the West, where the percentage of the population seeking a higher education has jumped sharply in the last decade. That increase, however, has not led to a corresponding expansion of facilities.
.
As a result, in West Berlin, the Free University now has 60,000 students in what are officially 29,000 places, while the Technical University crams 34,000 into facilities for 20,000. By comparison, Humboldt, with 19,000 students in 19,000 spots, is small.
.
“I hope we won’t make the same mistakes as Western universities,” said Ms. Dürkop, formally rector of the College of Social Work and Social Pedagogy in West Berlin from 1986 to 1990. “I think we can stay smaller.”
.
But while the Eastern universities are suffering from student brain drain now, the number of East German teenagers completing the high school leaving exam, which is a prerequisite for university entrance, will double over the next five years. And if the Eastern universities reform themselves successfully, they may not only have to deal with more applications from the East but from the West as well.
.

Tell us what you really think