Are West German universities a breeding ground for lefting extremists and terrorists, as some conservative politicians and educators charge?

Or are they turning out an apathetic new "silent majority that liberal author Heinrich Boll has called a generation of "hyprocrites, creeps, scaredy-cats, opportunities and worriers.?

The risks of either for West Germany, which has traditionally relief on its university-trained elite to run almost everything, would appear grave.

But a more exact picture of what is going on among the more than 800,000 students in 56 universities in West Germany is much more complex. It includes as its predominant element a confused mixture of reduced hopes lowered confidence in the state, rejection of materialism by some and for other a fear that is new to post-war Germany: not finding a job.

"Ten years ago, there was student unrest all over the country, Say Hamburg University Vice Chancellor Claus Ott. west German students were in the vanguard of radicalism and violence that shook several Western countries. "But then there was more of an engagement in ideology, justice and reforming society," he said.

Since 1968, the campuses have calmed down. The Vietnam war is over and a global recession has put a premium of studies. Now, says Ott, "many students are not involved in societal reforms but rather with their own problems."

Nevertheless, the wave of political killings by the leftist Red Army Faction terrorists that has rocked West Germany this year has reopened a would between much of suspicious public and the universities.

"Many of the terrorists are former university students. A small but vocal portion of the university community has supported, the Red Army's rejection of German society, though it is more cautious in support of the tactics of terrorism.

There is also as Ott and others acknowledge, a subculture of students who are increasingly isolated from West Germany society, who discredit the state and its legal system, and who "are trapped in their own idologies and are potentially dangerous."

Prof. Peter Glotz of West Gerlin has estimated this group as possibly 10-20 per cent of the total university population, although the number of actual radicals provoking disturbances is far smaller.

Also Ott says, "many professors, especially young ones, are more politicized today and quite a lot are Marxists who see their function as bringing. Marxist opinion into the community. Some of them have contributed to student disturbances by publishing misleading or imprecise material" about the state and terrorism.

In Ott's view "The university is no more of a birthplace for terrorism than the rest of society." Despite the acknowledged difficulties, he and most student leaders, feel the problems have been greatly exaggerated.

They reject allegations, mostly from conservatives, that the universities face anarchism and domination by the small core of well-organized radicals and that it has become impossible for serious students to study.

That simply is not true," says Reiner Sieck, a student goverment leader here.

Sieck, a Young Socialist within the left-wing of the country's ruling Social Democratic Party, says that "75 per cent of Germany's newspaper belong to conservatives, so they have an interest in playing up the idea "that the universities are full of radicals."

Education writer Uwe Schlicht charges that a sharply critical report issued this summer by the International Council on the Future of the University was "intentionally negative" on the West German situation, reporting only the conservative position.

"Student governments at most universities," Sieck said, "are not really radical. They are perhaps not always in agreement with the government, but most respect the government and consider it legally elected.

"Some universities, like Berlin, are special places with a traditional feeling that they almost have to be radical - something like your Berkeley was in California."

Part of the problem in assessing West German universities is their great variety. The university at Marburg, for example, is traditionally Marxist-dominated. Marburg is the only town in West Germany with Communist legislators, because the Marxist student population which votes in the town, is so high.

Others, like the university in the capital city, Bonn, are quite conservative.

Ott thinks Hamburg - the third largest university, with 28,000 students and 18 separate faculties - is perhaps typical and thus a good general barometer.

Last spring, a spokesman for a conservative group here was literally thrown off a stage by a half-dozen Maoist students when he tried to address a student assembly.

In May, a group of 30 to 50 radicals, mostly Maoist, stormed through classes for a few days with megaphones and disrupted lectures.

In student elections here this spring, there were 1,200 votes for the Maoist and some 5,000 for two groups, on allied with the Orthodox communism of the Soviet Union and East Germany, and another sympathetic to that view.

Sieck's Young Socialist got more votes than any extreme leftist group, but, as in many of other universities, some 60-70 per cent of the student body here does not vote.

"That is the tragedy of the silent majority," says Claus Tornier, a former student and now a university official. "They're not sympathizers, but they are weak. They don't oppose. If a hundred of them are sitting in a lecture hall and radicals come in clapping and with megaphones, they just sit there and say nothing."

"It's hard to know the political situation of a whole university when 70 per cent don't vote," says Dean of Students Evert Helms.

Leftists seem to be moving even further left, Helms said and conversatives are becoming quieter and less political and probably more numerous.

The situation may actually have strenghtened a university system that has been struggling to become more egalitarian in recent years. Helms and others say, by forcing faculties to argue with students and by lessening the influence of professors who had become too authoritarian.

West Germany's traditionally rigid and elitist university system has in fact been substantially democratized over the past 15 years, with almost one out of every four West German schoolchildren going to university now, compared with only about 8 per cent in 1960.

This however, has brought service overcrowding and tension in the universities. States are reluctant to build new schools because the mid-1960s baby boom has since dropped dramatically. This is turn has produced an enormous surplus of teachers and gloom in universities such as Hamburg where one-third of the students plan to teach.

The bottleneck in gaining admission to West Germany's jammed universities also works it way down into who is unemployed. Almost a third of West Germany's nearly 1 million unemployed are people under 25. As more qualified people are refused college admission, or graduate in fields they didn't really want, they begin pushing less-skilled workers out of traditional jobs.

The tension over these matters must be judged by German standards and traditions. Unlike the American mass education system, where a clever person does not need a Harvard degree to succeed, the German university diploma is the ticket to status, success and income and there are few alternatives.

The isolation on the left is compounded by the growing conservatives mood in the country caused by terrorism and unemployment, so that some extreme leftists who know they cannot get a state job become more extreme. Some who are no more leftist than the federal government know they will have trouble finding government work if they live in a conservative-controlled state. West Germany's civil service is vast, covering many jobs that are in the private sector elsewhere.

New student protests and scheduled against laws passed by the federal government three years ago but only now being implemented by the 11 west German states, including West Berlin.

The major new provision is that whenever possible, students should finish their students in four years. Although this is customary in the United States, it is the exception here. Many Germans stay in college two or three years longer.

They argue that even though tuition is free, room and board allowances are not enough thus they occasionally have to work for a semester.

Others like Seick argue that student government representatives I cannot do school work at the same time and thus need an extra semester or two.

Communist opposition is based on the feeling that hte longer they can keep their cadres in school, the better their chances are of recruiting new students.

Another controversial provision would give administrations a vague right to expel disruptive students, something they cannot now do unless a judge finds evidence of a crime.

A third crucial provision would make student governments permissable but not required, something Sieck sees as very dangerous.

Pointing to the decision already made by the conservative state of Baden-Wurttemberg to disband the student government, Sieck says, "That's just the kind of thing that will make more students radicals."