New Perspectives on Computer Science in Germany
by Werner Beuschel
CPSR News Volume 13, Number 1: Winter 1995
Isn't computer science attractive to German students anymore? During last winter term for the first time since CS curricula were established in the early 70s, the available capacity in CS departments exceeded actual enrollment figures. In fact, enrollment has continuously decreased for the past five years. At the same time, the addition of reorganized East German universities has expanded the number of opportunities.
For many years CS departments suffered a shortage of faculty while facing overwhelming numbers of students. Now suddenly, encouraging the study of CS, or as it is termed here and in some European countries, informatics has become a matter of (financial) survival!
Experts still argue about reasons for the decline, and it is certainly too early to speculate on future ramifications. After all, CS represents a success story in terms of the genesis of an academic discipline. Its offspring such as business informatics, administrative informatics, and medical informatics, are blooming, and applications to information technology are growing everywhere. Maybe future scholars will see this process as the institutional rearrangement of a discipline that grew too fast, holding on for too long to its abstract mathematical bases and neglecting the power of application-related requirements.
Nevertheless, current market facts convey a clear messsage. It's all too obvious that the software industry in Germany, as elsewhere, is undergoing dramatic changes, challenging smaller and bigger companies alike, except maybe the prosperous maker of sytems R/2 and R/3, SAP Inc. Most hardware and software companies simply do not have an urgent need for a bigger pool of job-seeking graduates. And news of slowed-down job opportunities is certainly not lost on a generation that gets and digests information faster than anyone before.
A second explanation for the decrease in CS enrollments is that new students are turning away from technical disciplines and toward business and management related fields. This movement can be seen as a societal trend that is hitting other departments like mechanical and electrical engineering even harder.
The prevalent opinion still is that hard technology has to be taken up before so-called soft issues like social implications.
Speaking of societal trends: recently Germans celebrated the fifth anniversary of the fall of the wall. It is now acknowledged now that unification requires much more time and effort than anybody expected in the beginning. Since then, one often hears the phrase "the wall within," which indicates the difficulties Easterners and Westerners have in understanding each other culturally and psychologically despite their common language. But the universities show encouraging signs of new beginnings. East and West German students together seem to enjoy the opportunities at the reorganized universities in the East, with their brand new equipment, smaller unit size, and motivated faculty. As one of my TAs put it, coming from her Western town to a Eastern university, "There are no masses of students, I can talk to everybody, computers are pletitul, I've got a job I like, and I've even found a boyfriend! "
Not too far down the road, it seems the German East's completely rebuilt and modernized infrastructure could give it an advantage not equal but comparable to West Germany's over its former foes some time after WW II. And university graduates could be among the first to put that advantage to use.
But progress is not everywhere apparent. While in CS departments of the "old" Western states, universities gained quite a number of permanent positions for specialists in "Computers and Society," during recent years (in Berlin, Bremen, Dortmund, and Paderborn among others), universities of the "new" Eastern states were not equipped likewise. The prevalent opinion still is that hard technology has to be taken up before so-called soft issues like social implications. On the other hand, the task of building new curricula also provides opportunities for the integration of social issues and for demanding that students acquire social skills comparable to their technical knowledge.
Will there be new directions for R&D support of information technology by the federal government that was (re-)elected in November? Much hype surrounds the recently created "future department," the colloquial term for the unified state departments of research and technology on one side and education on the other. Because its budget will probably be smaller than the sum of its two predecessors', hopes for a new and powerful German MITI may soon prove to be vain. But it's too early to judge, since the new secretary has not yet had time to explain his goals. Without much guesswork, we can expect issues of the "data-autobahn" to be high on his agenda. Now that real highways are clogged by hundred thousands of trucks cries-crossing Europe, everyone would like to see free and easy data access to the net. But the shape of service on the data highway is as vague as the societal interest groups negotiating about the shape. To organize such a shaping process on the basis of equity would certainly be a challenging task.
The transformation of the country is visible everywhere, with computer science as one of the key technologies transforming and being transformed by the society's ongoing development. The following observation supports this vision of a powerful interaction.* CS is the only scientific discipline that in the past 20 or so years has provided the technological background for three major lawsuits taken to the German Supreme Court. These suits centered around objections against
- Stationing the cruise missile Pershing 11 in Germany (safety issues regarding computerized control systems
- Using personnel information systems fto control workers (privacy and data protection issues)
- Taking the last public census (privacy and data protection issues)
* I was made aware of the coincidence by Reinhard Keil-Slawik, current chairman of the German forum for socially responsible computer scientists, FIFF/Bonn.
Werner Beuschel is a professor at Brandenburg State University in Germany. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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