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Exam critics urge reform

Controversy is raging over the effectiveness of the Abitur, reports Jennie Brookman.

It was Brahms' Bolero wasn't it? And Picasso painted the Mona Lisa - or was it Duerer?

General knowledge clangers by school-leavers in a Duesseldorf high school did not just provide entertainment value for readers of Der Spiegel news magazine which printed a selection of the best. It also served as evidence that the Abitur - the school-leaving certificate which qualifies pupils for a university place - is not the stamp of a good general education that it ought to be.

As pupils celebrated their end of exams with "Abi parties" this week, politicians and academics strongly criticised the exam.

Konrad Schily, president of Germany's only recognised private university and an established critic of the state education system, called for universities to be allowed to operate their own student selection process and scrap the centralised system relying on the Abitur.

His university is the only one allowed to operate its own selection procedures because it is outside state control, although its students are eligible for state support. As a result, Witten-Herdecke has a negligible drop-out rate compared with 31 per cent of non-finishers in the state system, he said.

"The continued use of Abitur as proof of a successfully completed education and as admission to university doesn't solve any of the problems of the universities confronted with overcrowding and stagnating funding," he wrote in Die Woche newspaper.

The dogma of a centralised admissions system which does not give the universities a say in the students they admit, can no longer be maintained, he said.

One-third of today's school-leavers go into higher education today compared with only one in 12 in 1960. The result is chronic university overcrowding, with 1.9 million students in a system designed for 910,000.

Universities complain that many of their students with Abitur are not university material. They are particularly critical that each federal state sets its own exam with varying degrees of difficulty. For instance in Hamburg 33 per cent of pupils pass the Abitur while in Saxony Anhalt it is only 14 per cent.

The conference of education ministers (KMK) wants to agree a reform of the Abitur by the end of the year. Some states want to make the exam more difficult to pass as a way of easing the universities' burden.

But Dr Shily believes reform will not solve the problem. "No state can politically afford to make life harder for pupils than in their neighbouring state," he wrote. "Only if the Abitur is freed from its role as entry ticket to university can it develop into a better exam for pupils."

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