German Universities: Close to Crisis? | Top Universities

German Universities: Close to Crisis?

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Staff Writer

Updated Feb 23, 2016



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While still among the world's higher education heavyweights, German universities face some tough challenges if the country is to maintain its competitive edge.

Nowhere is higher education in a greater state of flux than in Germany. Despite 230,900 students graduating from German institutions of higher education in 2004, a 6% increase on the previous year, the university sector is closer to crisis point than it has ever been before.

The average time for those completing their first degree was six years at universities and four and a half years at technical institutions, at a time when those graduating UK institutions complete in half the time and enter the labor market at a much younger age.

Whereas the average age for UK graduates is between 21 and 22, their German counterparts are closer to 28. Tough decisions face German universities to make themselves more competitive and relevant to one of Europe's giant, but currently stagnating economies.

Move to market-rate fees?

Demands for institutions to consider the introduction of market-rate tuition fees, combined with the effects of the 1998 Bologna Declaration, indicate that this could be a moment of great change in German higher education.

Peter Gaethgens, president of the German Rectors' Conference (HRK), views the tuition fee debate as particularly central to the reform of German universities.

At a time when many universities require increased levels of state funding where there is little budget, tuition fee income represents an opportunity to upgrade ailing facilities, Gaethgens says, "the prohibition of fees was a competitive disadvantage. We urgently need to improve the quality of our teaching and fees allow us to do this."

Since the signing of the Bologna Declaration in 1999, efforts by a range of European agencies have now resulted in the establishment of a 'European Higher Education Area'  a single geographic space that stretches from Galway to Vladivostock.

Opening up such a vast area presents a unique opportunity for students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels to travel more freely and gain a hugely diverse educational experience resulting in a transportable and internationally recognised qualification at the end of their studies - either undergraduate or graduate.

Never before have the education systems of so many different European countries been made accessible and interchangeable for the benefit of the individual student.

Standardizing program structures

Central to the changes related to Bologna is the resolution that all signatories should adopt a higher education system based on easily readable and comparable degrees in order to promote employability and the international competitiveness of the European higher education system.

In short, the old system of lengthy German bachelor's degrees and academic and professional postgraduate qualifications will be replaced by a standardized structure for the duration of undergraduate and postgraduate programs and will be implemented allowing all students to study for a minimum of three years at the undergraduate level and one year at the postgraduate level.

Students will benefit from both a consistent structure of programmes across the entire Area and a greater understanding by employers as to the value and content of qualification obtained.

As awareness of Bologna grows amongst students, those institutions not offering the new style programs are likely to lose out to those - in any European country, that are.

How will this benefit Germany and German students? Put simply, the previous system of lengthy and incomprehensible qualifications will be replaced by a unified system, easily understood by locals and international students alike and potential employers.

Moreover, at the postgraduate level German institutions will be able to offer the more commonly recognized master's degree, taught over one or two years, and compete in the global market for the best postgraduate students with UK, US and Australian universities.

"The old system of lengthy German bachelor's degrees and academic and professional postgraduate qualifications will be replaced by a standardized structure."

Playing catch-up

German institutions have been slow off the mark compared with other European countries. In the Netherlands for instance, Bologna-friendly undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes have been commonplace since 2002. Universities like Tilburg, Leiden and Groningen have a full range of undergraduate programs of three years duration and will be making one-year master's degrees available next year.

Moreover, Bologna has facilitated the introduction of programs taught in English. Ten out of the 13 institutions in the country currently offer more that half of their postgraduate programmes exclusively in English with six offering close to all of their degrees in English, making the education system second to the UK in Europe for the number of courses taught in English.

The effects are clear: more international students chose the Netherlands as their destination for study in 2005 than ever before.

Simeon Underwood, Academic Registrar at the London School of Economics and Political Science and advisor on Bologna to one of the world's leading universities, is in no doubt as to the impact Bologna will have on both students and institutions throughout Europe.

"An unprecedented number of choices will face the new generation of postgraduate students, whether to stay in one country for the entire period of their qualification or sample a range of courses and teaching systems throughout Europe.

"Higher education will become a buyers market, with all the benefits that brings to the buyer in question. German students will benefit from this structure just as many other students will, but German institutions need to match the pace set by some of her European sisters."

Internationalize and commercialize

Many of the changes in contemporary international higher education are undoubtedly driven by two factors; first, the drive to internationalize and second, the need to commercialize.

Most German institutions have for a number of years been ambivalent to at least one of these factors and in some cases, both of them but are now becoming more aware of their respective importance.

In a European sense, Bologna comprehensively represents both of these factors. Internationalization is one of the key buzzwords of university education the world over at the moment and forms a central limb of Bologna.

In some cases, say for example in the US, efforts to internationalize revolve around a complex set of issues such as diplomacy, the image of the country post 9/11 and the need to change university curricula to be more internationally facing.

In others, such has been the case in Germany, has been the active participation in global student exchange schemes like ERASMUS and SOCRATES, which have changed the educational outlook and experience of hundreds of thousands of German undergraduate and graduate students.

Commercialisation of higher education, either through the active marketing and 'selling' of institutions and their degree programs or through the branding and value acquisition of knowledge-related products emerging from universities has been an emerging trend for the last decade and has gathered pace in recent years with the need of many institutions to seek alternative sources of income in the face of declining Government subsidies.

Positive signs

German institutions have actively participated in the international market for the recruitment of students either individually or through the efforts of the Government agency, DAAD with good results.

An estimated 230,000 international students are currently enrolled on degree awarding programs within German universities and colleges and Germany as a destination for graduate studies is becoming popular.

A recent survey by QS Research, based on a sample of 1,566 potential postgraduate masters and research candidates, carried out in association with the QS World Grad School Tour, found that 22% of respondents indicated they wished to study for a graduate qualification in Germany, more than those wanting to study in Spain or the Netherlands.

The quality of German higher education remains unquestioned. But in this era of reform and student-centred learning and choice, the introduction of tuition fees and the Bologna Declaration must be seen as an opportunity by all degree awarding institutions to improve their educational provision, their quality and their market competitiveness.

The reality of tuition fees is that in countries where they have been introduced, universities have benefited, often financially, but more likely in terms of their perceived reputation and competitiveness in what is now one of the most international markets in the world today.

The reality of Bologna is that with over a quarter of all German courses already conforming to the new structure, the ball is already rolling and heading for a more accessible and more easily understood system of higher education.

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