History in the European Academy: Can Everything that Counts Be Counted?

Mériam Belli, March 2005

Editor's Note: This online version of the article provides more detailed documentation than in the printed version.

Eight years ago, Perspectives reported about German historians rescuing (with international support) the famed Max Planck Institute for History at Göttingen, which had been threatened with closure (see Perspectives of January, March, and May/June 1997). Recent news from Hamburg of budget cuts and downsizing in the academy once again foregrounds the question of the funding of humanities education—not only in Germany but in other European countries as well. For a long time, European states and societies have viewed financial deficits incurred in funding "non-utilitarian" fields such as philosophy or history as a socially productive long-term investment. Now many scholars and teachers are wondering whether the ongoing "reforms" point to a process by which this ideal tradition is being supplanted by a business model of education—of commercialization and privatization—that is inspired by the example set by American private universities. But are these new financial calculations a specter haunting the halls of European academe at large, or is the problem confined only to Germany?

The Problem in Hamburg

In what has come to be called by German critics the Halbierung (literally, bisection; here, reduction by half), Jörg Dräger, the senator for research and health at the University of Hamburg (UHH)—and a messiah of the new economic order in German education—followed the recommendations of a 2003 commission that had been set up to suggest reforms. These included a reduction in the number of students, as well as the cutback by a half of the faculty in humanities and language departments.1

The precedent set by this Radikalkur (radical cure) is all the more significant because UHH counts "the largest number of academics in the liberal arts and social sciences of any university in [Germany]," according to journalist Martin Spiewak.2 If it succeeds, the Hamburg experiment could open the door to the complete reorganization of German universities along similar lines.

Bisection vs. Rejuvenation

Where reform detractors see an unwarranted and damaging "bisection," UHH administrators see a long needed structural reform for the long-term benefit of the university. The two parties have different conceptions of "utility." For the former, the radikalkur operates against the common good, which needs the humanities, because these foster not only valuable general skills but also higher virtues and human values. Most important, critics of the Hamburg decision fear that this may signal the end of the nation's traditional comprehensive educational philosophy. This concern is shared by Spiewak, for whom Hamburg mirrors a nationwide trend toward market- and production-oriented educational politics, in which there is little or no place for the humanities. At the same time, Spiewak believes that academics are also to blame, by generally failing to acknowledge the serious financial problems at the heart of the crisis in the humanities.3

For administrators and politicians such as Senator Jörg Dräger and Hamburg Mayor Ole von Beust (who belongs to the conservative Christian Democratic Union party), structural reform is merely a pragmatic decision, undertaken to assure the long-term future of the university (self-sufficiency and growth). The reforms also resonate, supporters argue, with transcontinental imperatives, as established by the European Commission in the Bologna Declaration.
The June 19, 1999, Bologna declaration on the creation of an "open European space for higher learning," with 29 signatory states, affirms the need for "a greater compatibility and comparability in European systems of higher education" (degrees and levels, for example) as well as the need to enhance the "international competitiveness" of universities in order to "ensure that European higher education system acquires a worldwide degree of attractiveness equal to [Europe's] extraordinary cultural and scientific traditions."4

What is the particular significance of these reforms to history—or even to the humanities? Debates on educational reform have tended to remain general; in terms of political strategy, this is understandable. Stressing the value of large-scale reforms over a long term and highlighting their greater good for the nation in a supranational context obscures their specific and immediate consequences.

The Hamburg case has revealed, however, some of the particular consequences to history arising from the general reforms. According to Horst Pietschmann, a highly respected Latin Americanist at UHH, the "Bologna Process," which may be well-intentioned and actually have merits, could lead to a complete change in the organization of a career in the humanities and to a qualitative erosion in historical education.

Under the pre-Bologna system, Pietschmann argues, students were given a thorough and systematic education in the crafts of history (methodology, theory, practice) during a "Magister," which lasted at least four years (eight semesters). Upon completion of this cycle, students were ready to directly start their doctoral research and writing. This system, which produced solid historians, has nevertheless come under the attacks of politicians of all hues, who criticize high dropout rates and the older age of history graduates (27 on average).

Pietschmann defends the traditional system, arguing that even dropouts and graduates "find good jobs in nearly all fields of our economy, from mass media to banking, commerce, information-technology, etc." In his opinion, traditional history education, which provided not only knowledge of historical methodology and theory, but also practical skills, such as mastery in foreign languages and archival research, was highly prized by all types of employers in the job market. He points out that in the post-Bologna era, students will not be trained either in basic methods and theories or in the general skills that are attractive to employers.

Pietschmann concludes that the problem is fundamentally financial: history (like the humanities) became a victim of the local fiscal deficits of Hamburg and Bremen. Financiers would rather invest funds in clearly cash producing fields, such as the medical and natural sciences.5

Is this crisis confined to Germany alone or were there echoes elsewhere in Europe? What was the case in France, for example, where the state is the main source of research and education funding?

An Enduring Affection for the Bien Public in France?

The French government was also pushed by fiscal pressures over the past few years to successively announce reforms in the universities, secondary schools, and research institutions. But the French public see the humanities as a bien public, a public good, in which investment is always valuable and necessary. They launched demonstrations and strikes in November 2003 that were massive enough for the "modernization" reform, ratified in 2002, to be suspended, and for Luc Ferry, the trendy minister of youth, education, and research (2002–04), to fall.6 However, while university reforms have been put on hold, the fate of history and the humanities in other places like research institutes and schools is being debated. For example, the Centre National pour la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the public organization in charge of fundamental research, is threatened with its own Halbierung, the reduction by a half of its staff, almost all of whom are in the humanities. As at the University of Hamburg, this reduction is to take place gradually, through the dissolution of research departments and the regrouping of researchers in large labs.7

Nevertheless, not all French humanities scholars perceive a clear and present danger to the humanities. Well-known historian Jacques Revel, who is also the president of the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), one of the premier research institutions in France, sees no equivalence, for example, between the Hamburg crisis and the French situation. French fiscal policy toward history has been very consistent over the past 40 years, he informed Perspectives in response to a recent e-mail query. Recent events are an anomaly, according to Revel, and although in the past two years the French government attempted to alter the research budget, the strong reaction of researchers brought the budget back to its historical status quo, with its normal ups and downs. François Weil, another historian at EHESS, agreed that there is no direct comparison between the German events and the French situation, pointing out that the 2004 protest movement Sauvons la recherche was not a discipline-based movement, but rather aimed at general research policies.8

Weil believes that education and research are in no real danger of commercialization, despite the temptations of some shortsighted politicians. He notes also that the secondary place assigned to the humanities is no news: "it is a long-term fact, financially speaking, in comparison with biological science for example." The trend, he believes, will likely accelerate, but does not demonstrate "a systematic policy of eradication." The question of structural transformations is delicate, Weil admits, but "necessary evolutions need to be discussed and negotiated upstream." Jacques Revel also shares Weil's optimism in regards to research. Revel points to the fact that history research laboratories (which in France are, almost exclusively, public institutions) "have long learned to find and guarantee their resources," derived from both public and private funding. Analyzing the events in the long term, Revel does not see history facing any immediate financial threat. Rather than endangering the humanities, European reforms "disturb habits, that's all." The real harm that history is facing, Revel believes, lies in teaching conditions at the university: in the saturation of classrooms and the inadequacies of libraries. Reform is needed, so that students do not engage in educational paths without future, so that they may receive a valuable education.

Europe: Pretext or Occasion for Long Needed Reforms?

At the core of the discussions about the "crisis" of history and the humanities—in Germany as in France—clearly lies the issue of the financing of research and education. Two forces seem to be at play—one that pushes European states toward the "modernization" (read "economic liberalization") of its system along the "U.S. model" of charging university fees and public and private funding of research and education, and which does not recognize education as an entirely public responsibility; and another force, in which education (including higher education) is a fundamental, universal and public service, which is a state responsibility, and which guarantees social equality.

Thus on one side are reformers like Jörg Dräger, who thinks that the "[German] university, with its almost exclusive state financing cannot satisfy all the demands of a modern society," and equates modernization to privatization. Dräger contends not only that German education is less competitive vis-à-vis its U.S. counterparts, but also that the statistics indicate that the welfare-state system creates greater inequalities in access to education and social mobility. Consequently, Dräger advocates developing student loans and facilitating private funding (as in the United States) to promote colleges as "service providers" (Dienstleister) and students as "clients" (Kunde), and increase competitiveness among students.9 But Dräger is only pushing reforms that have long been on Europe's agenda. Members of the OECD agreed, in the 1994 General Agreement on Trade in Services (AGCS/GATS), to privatize their public services, including education.10

Yet, not everyone agrees. Belgian writer and teacher Nico Hirtt holds, in contradistinction to Dräger, that the "liberalization" of university will lead to greater social inequalities, as "parents will … need to devote an increasing part of their revenues to their children's education."11 In fact, when comparing gross enrollment ratios in tertiary education, statistics would seem to confirm Dräger's arguments and indicate a greater social inequality in Germany than in the United States. But if one looks at the qualitative differences rather than the quantitative measures, especially when comparing Germany to Sweden, the ultimate European welfare state, a different picture emerges (see table below).

Table: Gross Enrollment Ratios at the Tertiary Level

Enrollment at the tertiary-level, expressed as a percentage of the population in the theoretical school-age group corresponding to this level of education.

Both sexes (female)

56 (59)
60 (65)
51 (57)
54 (60)
48 (46)*
45 (51)
53 (61)
62 (73)
76 (93)
39 (33)
44 (39)
United States
73 (84)
81 (94)
United Kingdom
59 (63)
64 (70)
*UIS estimate; Switzerland comparable to Serbia and Montenegro.
Source: http://stats.uis.unesco.org/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=47

The commodification of the educational system at work for the past 20 years is the result, according to Hirtt, of the great pressures exerted on public institutions by financial elements that want schooling to adapt to their needs: "It is the marketplace that sets the tune." This commodification process is irreversible, Hirtt believes, especially considering that in the same time, state financing to universities is decreasing.

Others raise similar objections, asking how fundamental research will survive in a system dominated by profit, or point out that a profit-oriented education will create executives, not enlightened citizens.

The Greatest Material Happiness for the Greatest Number of Consumers

Jean-Luc de Meulemeester, an economist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, sees the educational reforms as a "cultural revolution." He perceives a consensual evolution in Europe toward a utilitarian ("the greatest happiness for the greatest number") and reductive understanding of education, under the validation of flexibility and individual responsibility. He believes that this consensus is at work, not only between policy makers (who want the economic wealth of the nation), parents (who want their children's well-being), and students (who want a good job in a high-unemployment environment), but also between these bodies and international organizations such as the European Union, the OECD, and the World Bank. To Meulemeester, such a utilitarian approach to higher education has come to replace the idea of "university as a site of critical distanciation, where young people prepare themselves to their professional life by learning critical research."12

The arguments of John Daniel, UNESCO's assistant director-general for education, illustrate Meulemeester's contentions. Daniel decries the accusations of "McDonaldization" and commodification launched against educational reforms: McDonald's is successful because people like it, Daniel says. "Commodification" is an ugly word, he believes, for a process that brings "greater freedom and choice" and better prices to large cohorts of consumers who are the beneficiaries of the competition brought about by the commodification of goods and services. Comparing the pursuit of an education to the purchase of material goods, Daniel claims that in "developing pedagogical materials for a large public, [universities] can justify the necessary investments to produce materials of high quality at a low cost."13


The fate of the discipline of history in Europe clearly depends on broader educational policies and philosophies. In a large perspective, two very different cultures seem to be at play, clashing on the nature of education and its purpose—whether higher education brings benefits to society at large (such as greater equality and liberty, and thus as an essential public service); or whether its profit is only demonstrable at the individual level (such as social mobility, and thus considered a private responsibility).14 In a pessimistic perspective, it would seem that Europe is heading toward a model of education that privileges functional skills (trade, technology, and sciences) and will necessarily relegate history to the function now held by the arts—dilettantish knowledge that may come in handy at Eurobusiness cocktail parties. From a more optimistic viewpoint, the European Union argument may provide European states with the opportunity to shake up institutions that have been resisting change. Burgeoning historians may simply profit in the future from more spacious, breathable classrooms, better-equipped libraries, and stop worrying and start counting the money. ?

—Mériam Belli is a research associate for the Research Division of the AHA.


1. "A college education is a profitable investment" declaims Jörg Dräger, "Bildungsdarlehen statt BaföG," Vortrag, Rektorenconferenz in München, March 27, 2003.

2. Martin Spiewak, "Hamburger Radikalkur," Die Zeit, August 19, 2004.

3. Spiewak, "Rettet euch selbst, sonst tut es keiner," Die Zeit, April 22, 2004.

4. “The Bologna Declaration: An Explanation,” http://www.crue.org/eurec/bolognaexplanation.htm. On the Bologna agreement, see the very interesting article by Jean-Luc de Meulemeester on the evolution of European education, "Privatisation, marchandisation ou instrumentalisation de l'enseignement: une autre voie est-elle encore possible? Réflexions a la lumière des évolutions récentes, » 4/27/2003, Attac-Wallonie-Bruxelles, http://wb.attac.be/article60.html, pp.5–8. See also “Studium Bolognese,” the opinion of Forschung und Lehre (the leading German newsletter for science and higher education) on the Bologna process, and its history, at http://www.forschung-und-lehre.de/cms/index.php?menu_id=6&nur_dieser_inhalt_id=1019.

5. E-mail correspondence with Horst Pietschmann, December 9, and 19, 2004.

6. See “Luc Ferry, un ministre dans la tourmente,” Le Monde, November 25, 2003.

7. Marc Mennessier, "Avis de tempête sur les sciences humaines," Le Figaro, June 1, 2004.

8. E-mail correspondence with Jacques Revel and François Weil, January 10, and 25, 2005, respectively.

9. Jörg Dräger, "Bildungsdarlehen statt BaföG," Vortrag, Rektorenconferenz in München, March 27, 2003.

10. See http://www.edu-int.org/2003-09-fr/2003-09-18.html.

11. See L’éducation aujourd’hui, no.3, Octobre/Décembre 2002, p.7; UNESCO, www.unesco.org/education/efa.

12. Jean-Luc de Meulemeester, April 27, 2003, http://www.assises-univecherche.ouvaton.org/article.php3?id_article=39.

13. John Daniel, Editorial, L'éducation aujourd'hui, no.3, Octobre-Decembre 2002, p.1.

14. Meulemeester, April 27, 2003.