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Germany

Sprinting Towards the Elusive Degree

Studying for university while at school? A business institute in Heidelberg offers a fast-track model considering Germans are, internationally speaking, too old by the time they wrap up their studies.

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Germans take notoriously long to finish university

For many German students, the word " Abitur" or high-school diploma usually implies single-mindedly cramming for a year to pass the grueling test which is the gateway to the notoriously long path to a university degree in Germany.

So, the thought of working towards an Abitur and another major university exam at the same time might cause some to break out in a sweat. But it hasn't deterred Nina Waffenschmidt, 19, and Simon Kontny, 18 -- both students at the private Young Business School (YBS) in Heidelberg -- from giving it a shot.

Schüler der Hösbacher Realschule brüten am 27.6.2002 über den Aufgaben zur Abschlussprüfung im Unterrichtsfach Deutsch.

Students at a high school in Hösbach write their "Abitur"

Waffenschmidt and Kontny are the first graduates of the institution-- the only one of its kind in Germany. For the past two and a half years, the teenagers have been trudging to the YBS after school to take intensive courses in economics and business management.

In the coming summer the hard work will pay off: Waffenschmidt and Kontny will kill two birds with one stone when they scoop both a high-school diploma and a Vordiplom, a major mid-degree exam that students at German universities normally take after four semesters.

The Vordiplom in business management will enable Waffenschmidt and Kontny to bypass the aforementioned four university semesters and start specializing once they enter college. If all goes according to plan, they could then claim a degree by the time they’re 22, like most students in Britain and the US.

Germany lagging internationally

The idea is almost revolutionary in a country where students are on average 28 or 29 by the time they complete their studies. It's a fact long bemoaned by German companies and politicians, who point out that the country's executives and corporate personnel, in particular, stumble badly when it comes to being internationally competitive because they're often at least five years older than their peers abroad.

Uni Hamburg belegt Spitzenplatz bei privater Förderung

University of Hamburg

"By the time German students are out of university, their counterparts in other countries are already in the second or even third leg of their careers," said Christoph Anz, education expert at the Berlin-based BDA employers' association. "The older age also means that Germans aren't very flexible when they start seeking work, they have too little working experience and companies need too much time to train them and initiate them into the job."

Those were the same reasons that caused Gero Schäfer, dean of the YBS, which is part of the Heidelberg Institute for Youth Management, to set up the school in 2001, after consulting with heads of companies and people involved in youth work.

Schäfer pointed out that cutting study time was also in the interests of the state. "People often study too long in Germany and these 'perennial' students cost the government around a billion euro yearly," he said.

Hard work and soft skills

But students who do get past the several entrance tests and into the YBS, which costs around €160 ($210) a month, have to be prepared to roll up their sleeves.

DW-Azubis in der Ausbildung zu Fachangestellten für Medien- und Informationsdienste

A student during an internship for communication technology

In addition to intense business and economics classes in small groups, the aspiring executives also need to do a corporate internship and learn a foreign language. The project is supported by software giant SAP, Germany's flagship airline Lufthansa and national train company Deutsche Bahn.

Further, students are expected to display leadership skills in a sports club, do an internship in a psychiatric clinic and generally to develop all-important communication skills.

"There's a massive lack of soft skills at the managerial level in German companies," said Schäfer. "Whether it's social competence, friendliness, defusing a conflict -- it' really important and if you start early enough, then people can learn that."

Burn out versus stimulating challenge

Critics however are skeptical. Hans-Wolfgang Arndt, dean of Mannheim University, which is in the process of setting up a private business school, dismissed the idea of saddling teenagers with business and corporate speak. "I think it would be better if they did an exchange program in the US or just traveled abroad," Arndt said. "They shouldn't spend the most creative part of their lives cramming."

Others warn that the program might simply burn out students already overwhelmed by the Abitur.

But, proponents of the YBS concept beg to differ. Graduate Nina Waffenschmidt said she had always been interested in economics. "The past two years haven't been horribly taxing or anything," she said. "If anything, it's been fun and challenging. I've learned a lot."

Schulkinder besuchen die Uni Potsdam

Catching them young: students listen to a lecture at Potsdam University

Ernst Fritz-Schubert, dean of the business and economics high school in Heidelberg where Waffenschmidt and Kontny are doing their Abitur pointed out that the two, who are active in student bodies and on school teams, are a source of motivation for the others.

"Schools in Germany have to encourage those who display an enthusiasm to achieve," Fritz-Schubert said. "We have to offer bright students more room and possibilities and open up new perspectives, particularly when students choose their own goals themselves."

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