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Germany

Higher Education


Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) founded the Berlin University in 1810. He insisted that universities should promote both research and teaching and advocated academic freedom, liberating professors from the demand that they submit their lectures for church or state approval and not deviate from the written text. Humboldt insisted that universities must be autonomous, free of political or religious interference, a goal that was not realized for many more decades. Humboldt also introduced less formal instructional settings, seminars, and laboratory sessions.

At the end of World War II, West Germany contained 16 universities and 14 technical colleges. Fachhochschulen, offering higher professional training in engineering and scientific fields, appeared in West Germany in the late 1960s. They offer instruction in fields such as business administration, engineering, agriculture, social work, or design. The period of study is usually shorter than at a university and culminates in the award of a Diplom.

In East Germany, the research function was transferred from universities to institutes and academies, such as the prestigious Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Both research and academic freedom came under the scrutiny of the Socialist Unity Party in the German Democratic Republic. Many administrators and senior faculty belonged to the Party, and Free German Youth groups existed on all campuses, exercising some control over student access and activities. At the time of unification, East Germany counted 54 institutions of higher education, among them 8 universities and 5 technical colleges. While their physical facilities were often outdated, and laboratory and computer equipment inadequate, these institutions enjoyed a favorable faculty-to-student ratio, with a stronger emphasis on teaching and learning than on research. Since unification, many institutions have been amalgamated and faculties combined or reduced in the East. New universities have been founded at Erfurt, Potsdam, and Frankfurt an der Oder, and new technical colleges at Cottbus and Chemnitz. Over a three-year period, departments of history, social studies, law, and Marxism-Leninism were disbanded and professors' qualifications and personal integrity were examined. New faculty positions were established in the humanities, legal studies, economics, business, and education.

New universities were founded in West Germany throughout the 1970s and 1980s when the population of university students doubled (from a half-million to around 1 million). However, facilities were not expanded to meet the demand. This was because demographers had predicted lower enrollments in the 1980s based on the low birthrates following the advent of oral contraceptives in the early 1960s. Despite these predictions, large numbers of students sought admission to higher education, especially in fields such as computer science, engineering, and business. Expectations that students would complete their studies more expeditiously and leave universities sooner also failed to materialize. In 2000 around one-third of united Germany's young people chose to study at a university or specialized college, and enrollment has remained around 1.8 million. The largest universities are Munich, followed by Berlin's Free University, and the universities in Cologne, Münster, Hamburg, and Frankfurt am Main. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed steady increases in the proportion of students from working class families (now around 15 percent), the proportion of students from immigrant families, and the proportion of women (40 percent in the West and 46 percent in the East) pursuing higher education.

German universities present many contrasts to the American university system. First, admissions to most fields of study are not competitive; high school graduates with the Abitur are assured of admission. However, since a period of overcrowding in the 1970s, admissions to fields such as medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, biology, management, economics, law, psychology, pharmacy, and nutrition have been restricted. Nearly half of all university admissions are decided on the basis of Abitur grades and testing, 10 percent solely on test results, and the remainder on the basis of an interview and other factors such as how long the applicant has been waiting for admission. Decisions for all public universities are made by a central admissions board in Dortmund. The average age for students entering higher education is 22; some have delayed this step because of the difficulty of obtaining a place in high demand fields such as the medical sciences. In 2001 about 25 percent of the students entering higher education have completed vocational training as well as the Abitur. Some students have pursued practical training or worked to earn money to finance their education. Because the average length of university study is 7 years, with slightly shorter times for technical colleges, students are 28 or 29 by the time they graduate and are ready to begin their careers. Recently concern has arisen that this places them at a competitive disadvantage among their peers in the European Union.

Tuition is free, but students pay for health insurance and activity fees each semester. Those who need financial assistance to meet living costs receive monthly subsidies known as BAFöG, an acronym for Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz (federal law to promote education). About a quarter of all students in the West and half of those in the East receive this financial assistance. Originally a grant, these subsidies were converted in 1983 to interest-free loans, usually awarded for a maximum of four years. A more recent decision to charge interest on BAFöG loans aroused controversy over the issue of fair access to higher education for all qualified students. About 60 percent of German university students finance their studies through part-time work; however, since Germany values special training and skilled trades, opportunities for entry into low-skilled occupations are limited.

Germany's university faculties have historically been considered attractive and prestigious; indeed those entitled to the honorific "professor" outrank even medical doctors in prestige. At the top of faculty rank are chaired professors; followed by Privatdozente, who do not have tenure; temporary and guest faculty; instructors whose role is limited to teaching, Lehrbeauftragte; and technical and teaching assistants, wissenschaftliche Hilfskräfte. Faculty at technical colleges are expected to bring appropriate practical experience as well as advanced degrees to their teaching posts. In addition to advanced degrees and teaching expertise, those wishing to ascend to a full university professorship must complete a step known as Habilitation, research and publication in their field analogous to a second doctoral dissertation, and orally presented to a committee of superiors for discussion and approval. Only after successful completion of this step (which may take as long as ten years) are faculty recommended for permanent appointment to the highest rank.

In 1999 the Conference of University Rectors (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz) recommended some changes in the training of new university faculty, maintaining that students should be able to obtain a doctoral degree by 27 or 28 years of age. Qualification for a tenure-track position should not require more than an additional 10 years—still very long by U.S. standards. The present system requires closely supervised research under the auspices of a senior faculty mentor, a procedure which discourages study abroad and may be restrictive, subjective, or unduly dependent on personal interactions. Furthermore, the emphasis on research does nothing to promote effective teaching. Reliance on the support of senior faculty, who are overwhelmingly male, makes it difficult for women to attain tenured university rank. Only about 5 percent of fully tenured university professors are women.

Germany had no private universities until the late twentieth century. In 2001 there are about 65, many church-related, whose total enrollment is about 30,000 students. Even in 2001, there are no noteworthy general-purpose private universities and no significant differences in status or quality among the country's approximately 90 public universities. In 1995 united Germany also counted 17 theological seminaries, 136 polytechnic colleges, and 31 colleges (Fachhochschulen) for administrative services. There are almost 50 academies of Music and Art (Kunsthochschulen, Musikhochschulen) but only 6 colleges of education (Pädagogische Hochschulen), since most have been combined with universities. In the 1960s and 1970s, technical universities and colleges sprang up, for example in Berlin, Munich, Augsburg, Bochum, and Trier. The distance-learning university at Hagen, founded in 1975, enrolls about 50,000 students, most of them part-time, in programs in economics, mathematics, electrical engineering, computer science, and other fields. The last 10 years have witnessed the creation of new bi-national universities, beginning with a joint German-Polish university (Viadrina) in Frankfurt an der Oder. France and Germany founded a new bi-national university in Saarbrücken in 2000, where instruction takes place in both languages; the study of artificial intelligence is a particular emphasis there. Beginning in 2001-2002 a Neisse university founded by the university of Wroclaw in Poland, the university of Liberec in the Czech Republic, and the university of Zittau/Görlitz in Germany will offer bachelors' degrees in information and communication management.

The curriculum at German universities also presents several contrasts to the American model. Germans consider that students at the Gymnasium have acquired a broad-based grounding in the liberal arts; thus universities have no core curriculum or general education requirement. Germans do not clearly distinguish graduate and undergraduate education. The period known as Grundstudium (basic studies) usually lasts for two years, ending with an examination, the Zwischenprüfung, or, in technical fields, the Diplomvorprüfung. A period of specialized, in-depth study follows, lasting two or more years longer. An examination is generally required at the end, either for civil service employment, the Staatsexamen, or a Diplomprüfung in scientific, technical, or engineering fields, or a master's level examination. The Magister (Master's degree) may require a thesis, as does the doctorate. There is no formal process for student advisement, nor for selecting an academic major comprised of a recommended curriculum. Instead, most students prepare for examinations by taking a variety of courses and seeking guidance from more experienced students or faculty. About one-fifth change their major during their course of study and as many as one-third drop out. A university degree does not guarantee employment in one's chosen fields: as many as a third of all graduates in languages, culture, social studies, and economics and one-tenth of those in medicine and veterinary medicine failed to find employment in keeping with their qualifications.

Courses of instruction at the university may be divided into various levels. Beginners sit in Vorlesungen (large lecture sections) and listen to a professor lecture from his notes or book. Tutorial sessions led by the professor's assistants may be offered in addition. Seminars are designated by their level of specificity and difficulty: Proseminar, Mittelseminar, and Hauptseminar. Students who wish to document their attendance and performance in these courses must make individual arrangements with the professor; generally, research papers and oral reports are required in the seminar courses. Close mentoring relationships between faculty and students are quite rare. Increasing student-faculty ratios make it even more difficult to develop such relationships.

As was the case at the level of high school vocational training, this educational model has proven conservative and somewhat inflexible. Thus new technological fields have found a place in new technical universities and colleges, rather than in the traditional universities. Although these opened their doors to women with the advent of the Weimar Republic, women are under-represented as both students and faculty in the sciences, law, and theology.

Student life at the university also presents several contrasts to the American system. The largest university, in Munich, has about 60,000 students, and many others are nearly as large, although the lack of a centralized campus masks their true size. The winter semester begins in October and extends through mid-February, while the summer semester lasts from mid-April to mid-July. Competitive sports are non-existent. Extra-curricular activities consist of a few groups organized, for example, on the basis of religion. Bruderschaften (fraternities) cultivate a rich tradition, but there are no sororities. The university campus may be spread throughout a city, with buildings housing newer faculties scattered on its outskirts. Only about 10 percent of a university's students in the West and 55 percent in the East are housed in dormitories, which usually reserve some space for foreign students. About one-fifth of university students and one-third of those at technical colleges live with their parents. Many students rent rooms or join others in apartments. The Mensa (student cafeteria) serves inexpensive meals and provides meeting space for students. Many university libraries have closed stacks, and students rely on their own housing arrangements for study space.

During the late 1990s, some West German students moved east to take advantage of East Germany's less crowded classrooms and lower cost of living. Some differences between East and West German students persist a decade after unification. Easterners are more apt to plan an academic program with a clear career goal in mind. They become financially independent earlier and finish their studies on average one year earlier than West German students.

Change is afoot in Germany's universities, after years of low budgets and high enrollments. In autumn 1997 university students began a series of demonstrations and strikes to protest lack of funding for higher education. While German colleges and universities can accommodate around 1 million students, there are currently about 1.8 million crowding into lecture halls and seminar rooms. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, the number of students rose 70 percent, but the numbers of college and university faculty increased only 5 percent. Basic federal financial aid (BAFöG) has increased only slightly. In 1997 a proposal made by the University Rector's Conference to charge tuition sparked the largest student protests since 1968 and was ultimately rejected. While these protests attracted media attention and loosened purse strings in a few federal states, they failed to achieve any far-reaching reform of higher education. Other reforms proposed in 1997 would have replaced some aspects of faculty governance with professional administrators, introduced student evaluations of their courses, and prescribed programs of study leading to bachelor's and master's degrees.

On the other hand, different kinds of changes are occurring on the university scene. Over a dozen universities, including Leipzig, Dresden, Reutlingen, Stuttgart, Kaiserslautern, Stralsund, and Duisburg, now offer some instruction in English, particularly in technical fields such as engineering, communications, water resource management, information technology, electronics, and business administration. Some institutions have begun to design curricula that more closely resemble the American model, offering a bachelor's degree after six semesters or a master's degree after nine. Students who have earned a bachelor's degree in their homeland may be able to enter a master's level program directly. Some colleges and universities are considering introducing the credit point system used in the United States. The goal of these innovations is to attract more foreign students and to better prepare German students for internationally recognized degrees. Many of these programs offer study abroad as an integral part of the curriculum. Courses in English are often taught by visiting faculty from the United States, Britain, Asia, or India. A secondary purpose of such programs is to abbreviate the traditional seven years most university students spend passing their examinations and earning a license or diploma. At Fachhochschulen, the average is slightly more than five years. Thus far, attempts to shorten these periods of study have proven fruitless. Success could depend on closer monitoring of student progress and better advisement, an area where German universities have traditionally done relatively little.

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