Reform or Re-Labeling? A Student's Perspective on the Introduction of the Bachelor's and Master's Degree in German Higher Education

Article excerpt

The German higher education illness: a diagnosis

The German higher education system is suffering from a serious malaise. After years of inactivity and half-hearted reforms, the diagnosis is clear--we have to change our habits, or the patient will die a silent death. The findings reoccurring in the public debate on German higher education can be summarized as follows:

When they finish their first degree, German students are much older than their European peers. The average age of a German graduate in the year 2000 is twenty-eight years, the average freshmen having entered into university at the age of twenty-two (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2002). Apart from extended costs for the state in the form of child benefit, tax exemption and losses to the pension funds, an average 6 years of study also prolongs the payments of parents during the period of their children's education and deprives the students themselves of possible income.

In Germany we find dropout rates of about 30 % at university level (Hochschul-Informations-System, 2002: p7). Dropout rates are especially high in the social sciences, where 42% of the students leave without a degree, and the humanities, where we find dropout rates of 41% (Hochschul-Informations-System, 2002: p28).

Furthermore, the degree of internationalisation of the German higher education system is too low. The German degree system is not compatible with the Anglo-American one, and Germany has always been very reluctant to accept foreign degrees, both in the academic sphere and in the labour market. Likewise, German universitie s are very inflexible when it comes to recognizing individual courses attended at foreign or even other German institutions. It is also argued that German degrees are not easily transferable on the international level. It is thus concluded that studying in Germany is an unattractive prospect for foreign students.

Finally, employers and graduates alike complain that German degree programmes are too impractical. Applied coursework is rare and many programmes do not include internships or other career-oriented elements.

The common lament is that the prestige of German graduates and German Higher Education on the international scene is seriously in decline. The phenomenon of the mass university combined with long-term shortages in funding has lead to a deterioration of the student-teacher ratio and ever-growing deficits concerning equipment and infrastructure of the German university. Obviously, the quality of German Higher Education is completely overturned in a society where more than 30% of a generation attend a university based on the values of an 19th century elitist system designed to prepare a selected minority for a career in academia. At the same time, the need for qualified graduates is growing, so it is not an option to blindly restrict the access to higher education. Thus, the public debate stresses the need to reorganise the degree structure in a more efficient way, enabling students to complete their first degree earlier.

European medication

In this context, the introduction of the Bachelor's and Master's degree in the German Higher Education system comes as the ultimate cure. The German policy is a result of the 'Bologna-Sorbonne-Prague Process' that recognizes the need for student transfer in European higher education and on the European labour market, but also increases the competition between the national higher education systems. Following these international developments, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Laender in Germany (KMK (1)), the federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF (2)), as well as the Association of Universities and other Higher Education Institutions in Germany (HRK (3)) have set the framework for the introduction of 'modularisation' and 'credit point systems' leading up to a Bachelor's Degree after three or four years and a Master's Degree after one or two more years. …