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Campus of ideas

A diverse higher education system with an international orientation and strong extra-university research.
by Martin Spiewak and Janet Schayan

Famed minds such as Humboldt and Einstein, Hegel and Planck laid the foundations for Germany’s reputation as a land of scholars and as the “country of thinkers and poets”. As early as medieval times, scholars from all over Europe made the pilgrimage to the newly founded universities in Heidelberg, Cologne and Greifswald. Later, following the university reforms carried out by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), the German universities actually became considered the ideal example followed by discerning academics elsewhere. Humboldt conceived of the university as a venue for the independent pursuit of knowledge.

Reforms to meet the international competition

Globalization is also creating new challenges for the German scientific and university community. The policymakers and universities have taken the initiative, with a series of reforms to adapt the university system to the new international standards. Be it the switch to staggered degrees such as Bachelor and Master degrees or the introduction of tuition fees and selection tests, be it the emergence of private facilities for academic training or the stronger strategic alliances between universities and institutes outside the higher education system – it is safe to say that the education system is the section of society undergoing the most major changes.

The goal of the reforms is to strengthen research and teaching to better face the ever fiercer international competition. Changed legislation on universities grants each university greater scope, and established professors are being paid more clearly according to their performance. Each big-name university tries to give itself a keener profile, and various rankings on university quality and popularity enhance competition.

The “Excellence Initiative”, which has been being successfully implemented since 2006 at German universities also furthers this goal. The German Research Foundation (DFG) is the main financial backer and primarily responsible for organizing this Excellence Initiative. Up until 2017 those universities selected by an independent jury of experts are due to receive EUR 2.7 billion. Through the specific promotion of research-friendly structures and interdisciplinary collaboration, not just in but also between universities, non-university research facilities and business, the “Excellence Initiative” has had an enormous structural impact.

Graduate schools for the up and coming generation of scientists, outstanding centers in certain research disciplines (excellence clusters) and the research profile of eleven top universities are promoted. This “elite” includes RWTH Aachen University, FU Berlin, HU Berlin, TU Dresden, TU Munich, LMU Munich and the Universities of Bremen, Cologne, Heidelberg, Konstanz and Tübingen. With their research these “beacons of science” are intended to shine internationally as well.

The diversity of the tertiary education system

After the Second World War, an academic community arose that was more broadly diversified than ever before, a fact stimulated by German reunification in 1990. Anyone wanting to study in Germany is able to choose between some 370 higher education institutions that are spread across the entire country. Be it in cities or in the countryside, traditional or highly modern, small with everything in walking distance or large and spread across a pulsating metropolis – today almost every larger German city has its own college or university. The state of North Rhine-Westphalia alone has over 18 universities and institutes entitled to award doctorates, 33 universities of the applied sciences and universities not entitled to award doctorates, and 9 academies of art and music. Many of them were founded in the 1960s and 1970s, the age of major expansion in tertiary education, when within the space of only two decades, the number of students exploded by a factor of five, with the figure for female students rocketing most. Today, they have almost overtaken the number of their male counterparts.

Today, some two million young people study in Germany. In 2009 the ratio of school leavers entering higher education was 43.3 percent. With a drop-out rate of a mere 23 percent, on an international basis Germany is in the top group. With regard to doctoral students as well Germany is in a top position: 2.3 percent of an academic acquire this level of qualification.

As opposed to many other countries, private universities play a comparatively subordinate role: More than 90 percent of students attend public institutions that are subject to state supervision and control and are essentially open to anyone who has a high-school leaver’s certificate (or a comparable certificate) that authorizes them to enter university. Since the 1970s, alongside the state universities and theological colleges, many non-state-funded, non-denominational universities have been founded, financed by tuition fees and donations.

Technical universities and universities of the applied sciences

While the classic university is dedicated to pure science and scholarship and covers the entire spectrum from ancient studies through to economics, the technical universities (TU) focus on engineering and the natural sciences. The TUs have a sterling reputation as the forges of German engineering know-how and are especially popular among foreign students.

Since the late 1960s, another special institution has evolved in the German education system: the university of the applied sciences (FH). Almost a third of all students in Germany attend a FH, or a so-called vocational academy as it is known in some German states – these collaborate closely with corporations. Students are attracted to the universities of the applied sciences above all by the fact that the track to a job is shorter – an FH degree course lasts three years as a rule – and the curriculum is more practically oriented. Stringently organized courses and regular examinations ensure that the average time spent obtaining a degree is less. This does not mean that there is any shortfall in scholarship – the approx. 200 universities of the applied sciences also conduct research, albeit with a strong focus on potential applications and industry’s needs.

Strong international orientation

Germany appeals to young people from all over the world as a place to study. About 240,000 foreign students are enrolled at German universities, 70 percent more than in 1995. Today, more than every tenth student comes from abroad, the largest numbers coming from China and Russia. Germany is the third most preferred host country for international students, following the United States and Great Britain. Furthermore there are 25,00 foreign academics working at German universities and a further 23,000 foreign academics are supported by German funding organizations.

The success in the internationalization of German academia is down to the joint efforts of universities and politicians. The international exchange of students, doctoral students and academics is promoted through specific projects, scholarships, and prizes. The measures are accompanied by programs aimed at increasing the rate of student success and the social integration of foreign students. German universities advertise successfully worldwide for students and young academics. German schools abroad, partnerships between German universities and those in oter countries, including Singapore (TU Munich), Cairo (Ulm and Stuttgart universities) and Seoul (the Weimar Academy of Music), and the growing number of departments of German universities abroad also play a role in this. Frequently the DAAD, German Academic Exchange Service, lead manages such foreign initiatives. It also played a role in setting up hundreds of foreign-language courses (frequently in English) at German universities. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is also one of the important sources of funds for cross-border academic collaboration.

Since 2010 courses at German universities have been adapted to the internationally recognized Bachelor and Master degrees. This was the intention behind the Bologna Declaration, to which all European states are signatories. The idea is not only to facilitate student exchanges throughout the continent, but also to make Europe a more interesting prospect for international academics.

What has long since been the norm at art and music academies is, according to the plan, is also becoming the practice at every university. Until recently, only a small number of departments chose their own students. A central office, the ZVS, handles allocation to universities of students to those subjects with admission restrictions – nationwide these are at present Medicine, Pharmacology, Psychology, Veterinary Medicine and Dental Medicine. An increasing number of universities are also issuing their own restrictions for specific subjects, and first testing or interviewing applicants before awarding them places.

In 2005, a Federal Constitutional Court ruling overturned the traditional taboo on tuition fees. Until then in Germany it was (almost) only the state that paid for tertiary education. At the moment federal states charge tuition fees from the first semester onwards, albeit relatively modest ones by international comparison. Other Federal states also levy tuition fees for students who have exceeded ten semesters or have opted after graduation to study another subject.

Industry strongly engaged in research

While it is the universities that are solely responsible for courses of study, needless to say in Germany research is also undertaken outside the university. Thus, German industry is strongly engaged in research: Germany ranks third after the USA and Japan with regard to triade patents. When it comes to patents in the fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology and new technologies, Germany is one of most active nations with the USA and Japan. With around one third of triade patents Germany leads the way worldwide in the field of vehicle emission reduction.

Top research outside the universities

Cutting-edge research is also being done at hundreds of scientific institutes that are grouped together in organizations such as the Helmholtz Association, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the Leibniz Association. Precisely these research institutes outside the universities offer leading research minds optimal working conditions that are as good as unparalleled the world over. Here, some of the most fruitful German minds are busy undertaking research and publishing highly original articles. This is especially true of the 77 Max Planck Institutes (MPI). Be it searching for water on Mars, the human genome project, or exploring human behavior, the MPIs are at the forefront of things when it comes to exploring virgin scientific terrain. Since the Max Plank Society was founded in 1948 its scientists have won numerous Nobel Prizes and many other international awards. The Max Planck Society is so appealing to them because of how it sees research: Each institute defines its own topics, is equipped with superb working conditions, and has a free hand when selecting staff. For many a scholar, being appointed Director of an MPI is the pinnacle of his or her career.

What is rare at an MPI is by contrast the very source of life for the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft institutes, namely close collaboration with industry. The research facilities, more than 80 in total, conduct applied research primarily into engineering-related fields. Fraunhofer experts have one foot in the lab and the other in the factory, as their projects are as a rule commissioned by companies, specifically mid-sized corporations.

The 86 member institutes of the Leibniz-Gemeinschaft are not only strong in the life and natural sciences, but also trend-setters in the humanities, the social sciences and economics. They include ifo-Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung, which regularly publishes a business climate index, Deutsches Museum in Munich, one of the world’s leading science and technology museums, the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, and Mannheim’s Institute of German Language, that provides scholarly support for advances to the German language.

A total of 16 high-tech German research facilities are joined under the aegis of the Helmholtz Association; they are large and often extremely expensive institutions that are well known internationally, such as the Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung (GSI), the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron in Hamburg (DESY) or the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven. Every year, the Helmholtz institutes attract thousands of foreign researchers, who wish to conduct physical or medical experiments in what are often facilities that are unique worldwide.

by Martin Spiewak and Janet Schayan