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Culture

University reforms struggle to make the grade

Greater mobility, internationally recognized degrees, and better access to higher education across Europe - that was the aim of the Bologna reform. A decade later, students in Germany are disappointed.

These days, his regular spot in the café at the university library in Bonn is empty. It's summer break and economics student Alexander Schreck is taking some time off. During the semester, though, he's here every day - not to drink coffee or chat with his friends, but to study.

"I work best with a constant level of background noise," he said.

Schreck, who is a second-semester master's student, spends at least eight hours a day with his studies, either in lectures or sitting over his books. During the summer breaks, he does internships or earns a bit of extra money.

It's what's become typical for student life in Germany, 10 years after the Bologna reforms were introduced here on August 15, 2002. Since the tightly structured BA and MA programs were implemented, students have hardly had any extra time for friends, sports or other hobbies.

The challenge of mobility

Mostly, though, the dream of study abroad has become more difficult to realize - and that was just what the reforms were intended to avoid.

A German student in Paris

One in five students studies abroad

"Those who take a course abroad want to have it count toward their degree, but there is still too much uncertainty," said Margret Wintermantel, head of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and long-time president of the German Rectors' Conference.

Only one in five bachelor students spends a semester abroad, though the Bologna reforms were supposed to increase that proportion. Wintermantel would like to see 50 percent of bachelor students go abroad, though such a high number will likely remain a pipe dream.

Since it was introduced, 47 countries have signed the Bologna treaty, but the "Europe of universities" that was intended has yet to be established. Universities across Europe now offer BA and MA programs, but the differences between them are too great to make them compatible.

More dropouts

As far as international mobility goes, Wintermantel's successor, Horst Hippler, isn't particularly optimistic. The new system doesn't make it easier for students to go abroad, he's criticized publically.

His opinion distances Hippler from Germany's Minister of Education Annette Schavan, who has praised the Bologna treaty as an "example of a European success story." The reform has encouraged mobility and the dropout rate is decreasing, according to Schavan.

A current study conducted by the Higher Education Information System (HIS) shows that 35 percent of bachelor students don't complete their studies - three percent more than in 2010, the last time statistics were gathered.

In the remaining diploma programs - the curricula followed prior to the Bologna reform - the dropout rate is 24 percent. Achim Meyer, secretary general of the German student union, Deutsches Studentenwerk, says the dropout rate among bachelor students is higher because the students are overloaded.

Bologna burnout

"With the Bologna reforms, the demand among students for guidance counseling has risen dramatically," said Meyer, who demands more financial resources for such support.

Diploma and graduation cap

35 percent don't complete their bachelor degree

According to an internal study, 83 percent of workers at the psychological counseling centers run by the German student unions say they have observed an increase in overwork and physical exhaustion among students.

"The students say they have difficulties concentrating and sleeping, and have stomach problems," said Doreen Liebold, the author of the study. "Many feel unmotivated and don't have fun in their studies anymore."

If the reforms themselves aren't reformed, said Liebold, then more and more students in Germany will suffer from burnout.

Reforming the reforms

Criticism of the current conditions has reached Education Minister Schavan. Over the next several years, she wants to invest two billion euros in reforming curricula and improving the teaching at German universities.

With an increasing number of teenagers choosing to attend college, the issue affects more and more people in Germany. Ten years ago, 37 percent of each school class went off to university; now it's around 50 percent.

Rising enrollment creates logistical challenges for the universities that have only made mobility more difficult. Getting a room in a student dormitory seems as unlikely as winning the lottery, for some, and long lines in the cafeteria disrupt the students' strict schedules.

Those who managed to get a place at the university under these conditions won't give it up so quickly. 

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