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“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.” (John F. Kennedy, US President 1961-1963)

New digital seminars, loss of student jobs, cancellation of semesters abroad: the global COVID-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on all areas and stakeholders of the higher education system. And yet the situation is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity to put existing concepts, systems and innovations in the German higher education system to the test.

Whether flexible working time models, the establishment of crisis management teams or admission procedures – throughout the country, stakeholders from universities and from politics are asking themselves a number of questions: What has proven successful during the pandemic and what has proved to be ineffectual? Which bright ideas and convincing examples from home or abroad are worthy of imitation? What lessons can be learned from the crisis and applied to normal operations? And what might tomorrow’s crisis-proof higher education system look like post-coronavirus pandemic?

During the state of emergency, which affects us all, it has become apparent, in many areas of university management, which structures promote or hamper progress in the event of crisis. CHE is keen to systematically pool and review the lessons learned from the coronavirus era to ensure that positive developments and experiences can be systematically and sustainably embedded in everyday operations post-COVID-19.

Access to higher education

The choice of university and the search for a place carry a special significance in times of the coronavirus pandemic. Since many higher education institutions (HEIs) are operating with restricted face-to-face teaching contact, online comparison and information sites such as the CHE University Ranking for Germany, U-Multirank and university websites are gaining in importance. However, a CHE sample published in spring 2020 shows that the quality of information and ease of use of university websites differ considerably.

Eine Vorlesung im vollen Hörsaal

Given that the Abitur examinations were held under special conditions, education experts are debating the more extensive use of other assessment procedures in place of Abitur grades. The CHE format CHECK on access to higher education in Germany shows that around 40 per cent of all Bachelor programmes are currently subject to restricted admission, resulting in the Abitur examination grade, among other things, being taken into account in the allocation of places. In most subjects, the issue of testing plays a minor role. For example, only 18 per cent of all departments used obligatory selection or aptitude tests in the allocation of places, as shown by an analysis conducted by the CHE in 2018. More than one-third (35 per cent) of all departments already make use of a digital variant of the aptitude test – referred to as self-assessment.

For this reason, CHE calls for greater interplay between previous selection elements, encompassing Abitur examination grades, aptitude tests and consideration of practical experience, as is the case when applying to study medicine, for example. An information brochure on the CHE portal www.studieren-ohne-abitur.de explains the current selection and application procedures for prospective students without a traditional university entrance qualification.

Digitalisation of teaching and learning formats

The coronavirus crisis has led to a drive to digitalisation at higher education institutions (HEIs) in Germany and throughout the world. To avoid a risk of infection, HEIs are compelled to switch completely to digitalised versions of established processes such as teaching. It provides a great opportunity for evolving digitalisation in higher education. And yet there is no guarantee of success. A strategy process is needed, enabling the lessons learned to be incorporated into normal operations.

In addition, there is a need for specific support programmes for university lecturers. One such example is instructional designers who provide technical and didactic guidance to teaching staff in the use of digital teaching and learning options. This type of support is rare in Germany, as revealed by an extensive comparative study within the DUZ Spotlight 2019 series. Practical and legal issues in connection with digital examination formats are also gaining in importance in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stakeholders are able to share experiences and learn from each other via the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung. Relevant approaches, opportunities to share ideas, and sources of inspiration are available on the Hochschulforum Digitalisierung (HFD) website. The HFD has created a special page covering all activities in the coronavirus pandemic. A compilation of the key facts and figures regarding the situation in the digital summer semester 2020 is available in a CHECK overview.

Student finance

Part-time jobs during university and support from parents were the two main sources of finance for students in recent years. Other alternatives such as BAföG (student grants), student loans and scholarships are used comparatively rarely – especially in relation to the growing student population, as the CHECK Studienfinanzierung (2019) (CHECK student finance) shows. This now has a fatal impact on student finance, as the economy deteriorates. It can therefore be assumed that a larger number of students are currently in dire straits.

In his statement and in an interview with Deutschlandfunk, Ulrich Müller from CHE called for a greater use of BAföG, which offers much more accommodating and student-friendly repayment arrangements. He also criticised the KfW solution implemented to date, calling it a “loss leader” for costly student loans.

University and crisis management

From hygiene concepts to virtual senate meetings, higher education institutions (HEIs) are compelled, in times of COVID-19, to develop swift and flexible solutions for students and staff alike. Good crisis management plays a central role here, which is why emphasis is placed on this aspect in this year’s choice of “University Manager of the Year”.

In a survey of around 7,000 business Master’s students, 80 % rated their university’s crisis management as “good” or “very good”. The CHECK on this topic provides further results of the survey, including topics such as online courses.

The situation is more differentiated when it comes to staff: according to a study undertaken by CHE Consult on German higher education institutions – working from home, the majority of institutions have options in place to enable their staff to engage in more flexible forms of work. However, considerable differences emerge when the situation for technical and administrative staff is compared to that of academic staff.

Funding of higher education

Crisis warnings on the financial situation of universities can be heard from around the world. A forecast for Great Britain suggests that the sector could lose £2.5 billion in income the 2020/21 academic year. The island expects to have a quarter of a million fewer students.

 

Until now, higher education institutions (HEIs) in Germany have been less affected financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that HEIs in Germany are also dependent to a great extent on a single major source of finance. Whereas in other countries, the higher education system is often funded primarily tuition fees, in Germany 86 per cent of the costs are borne by the federal states and the federal government. In view of the economic stimulus packages worth billions, the financial crisis is expected to affect the publicly financed higher education system after a delay.

Looking beyond Germany, it becomes apparent that many countries have a system of funding higher education that is heavily dependent on international student fees. In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, there is a danger that they will stop coming. An analysis undertaken by U-Multirank shows the extent to which funding is in jeopardy in specific countries.

CHE Executive Director Frank Ziegele outlines in interviews and reports what could consititute more crisis-proof university funding, embracing lessons learned from the current developments. The primary focus is placed on diversifying the sources of finance.