In the 200 years since its inception, Berlin's Humboldt University has frequently fallen prey to the reform whims of education ministers. In recent years, that has meant moving closer to the US college model.
Choosing a university is only the first step
With its vast marble staircase and lofty ceiling, the foyer of the Humboldt in central Berlin is an imposing space. It has an air of prestige and learnedness about it. But that is not all it has.
In one corner there is something quite different: the university store, which is filled with shelves and rails of brightly colored clothes bearing the Humboldt insignia. One t-shirt boldly states "my mother wanted me to go to Harvard, my father wanted me to go to Cambridge, but I wanted to go my way" - that way being the Humboldt.
And while the university, which ranks among the top 10 in the country, is undoubtedly popular, some 8,000 Germans are currently studying at colleges in the United States. That is fewer than are on programs in the Netherlands and Austria, but still a large number given the prohibitively expensive fees synonymous with an American university education.
Ursula Hans, director of the International Office at the Humboldt, said one of the major benefits of the US system is that it not only teaches its students, but is also willing to learn from them.
German professors are often responsible for too many students
"This is a university system that for 200 years or more has been taking tuition from its students, and that has translated into services, and institutes and departments that are well planned and set up," Hans told Deutsche Welle.
It's a view shared by German students who have experienced the American system first-hand. Ines Eben von Racknitz went to Stanford University on a scholarship to study Chinese, religion and comparative literature. She was so taken with the whole experience that she said she probably would have done it even if it had meant leaving college with a mountain of debts. She was amazed at the resources and the attitudes of those on campus.
"Everyone wants to help you to get a job afterwards; people are looking after you," said von Racknitz. "And you have amazing archives and libraries which are open all the time, and professors have open doors, so are always available."
But what stood out to her perhaps more than anything was the enthusiasm with which the academic staff went about their own work and encouraged her in hers.
"They are delighted in what they do, they have passion and they are glowing from it," she continued. "If you are in academia, you are abandoning riches and fame, so you need to be passionate and delighted; that is what they are, and it's very inspiring."
Stanford University: not just a pretty face
Although von Racknitz was at pains to stress that the time she spent at German universities also provided her with an excellent education, she said professors here seem to lack that American elan which can be an invaluable source of inspiration and motivation for students. The reason for that, experts agree, is that teaching staff at colleges in Germany face a much heavier workload than their counterparts across the Atlantic.
While professors in the US can generally leave the administrative aspect of their work to someone else and concentrate fully on their teaching and research, in Germany that is a luxury reserved for professors at well-financed masters programs. The rest are left to multi-task, which, according to Ursula Hans, is a problem both for the teaching and the student body.
"How can you talk to your advisor if he is responsible for 20 other people?" Hans asked. "And how is the advisor going to make time to take care of your student or PhD needs if he is involved in other commissions and doing research and serving on other committees?"
Barbara von Bechtolsheim, who got her PhD at Stanford and has taught at colleges in both the States and Germany, agrees that German staff are overloaded, but believes that German students could be pushed harder.
"I came to Stanford with an MA in German studies from Munich and I had studied with one of the best professors there," she said. "However when I came to Stanford, I learned I didn't know much in terms of academic standards."
No matter where you study, there's no way to avoid hitting the books
Her four years in California were hard work, but they broadened her horizons and her expectations of herself. They also left her in no doubt that a US university education has more to offer than a German one. Apart from the resources and the support on offer to students there, she says the first two years in which all undergraduates are given a solid grounding in history, literature and culture, are absolutely invaluable.
"It's a very good idea even if you want to major in math or geology that you have such a broad mind and reference points," she said. "In Germany, you can go to medical school and if you haven't learned it at home or school, medicine and physics and chemistry is all that is on your mind."
But Ursula Hans, herself a former US college student, is not convinced of the merit of that approach. She believes one of the greatest strengths of the German system is that it does not bombard young people with facts, but teaches them to think for themselves.
As far as she is concerned, a university education from Germany is of an extremely high standard. She says if there is one thing colleges in Germany could perhaps still learn from their American counterparts, it would be the fine art of marketing an identity.
If the items for sale in the Humboldt store are anything to go by, that lesson has already been taken on board.
Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Kate Bowen