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Changing landscape

September 13, 2010

Academic life in Germany has changed significantly in recent years. Bachelor's and Master's degrees are now the norm, and an initiative recognizing elite universities has provided a new reason to compete for funds.

Rows of students sit at a lecture at the University of Heidelberg
German universities attract students from around the world.Image: Universität Heidelberg / Dorn

More than two million foreign students are enrolled at German universities, meaning one out of every 10 is an international student. For students from elsewhere in Europe, the process of coming to Germany has gotten even easier in recent years. In 1999, Germany and 31 other European countries entered a contract known as the Bologna Process, which aims to create a more uniform educational system in Europe. More countries have signed on since then.

Streamlining the system

The Bologna Process' biggest goal is to ensure a uniform system of conferring degrees, based on the Bachelor, Master and PhD system. That marks a shift away from the degrees formerly offered in Germany, known as the Diplom and Magister.

The transition has also led to the creation of many new courses of study that are relevant or even made especially for students from other countries, like the "SPRING" (Spatial Planning for Regions in Growing Economies) Master's program at the Technical University Dortmund. The SPRING curriculum focuses on city and regional planning issues worldwide.

Everything at a price

Germany's diverse university landscape is made up of more than 400 institutions. In some states, tuition of up to 500 euros is required, but that is still much less than the average in the US, England and France. However, German politicians and students continue to debate how much money students should have to pay in tuition, if any. Many universities in eastern Germany require no tuition at all.

Alongside the classically-oriented universities with a broad range of programs, there are also colleges known as Universities of Applied Science as well as other academies with degrees tied strictly to certain jobs. Music colleges, art academies, and media and film academies enrich the university landscape further.

A statue of Wilhelm von Humboldt stands in front of the Humboldt University in Berlin
Monument to the founder: Wilhelm von Humboldt in front of Humboldt UniversityImage: HU Berlin / Heike Zappe

Tradition lives on

Germany's oldest university is the Ruprecht Karls University in Heidelberg, founded in 1386. The Humboldt University in Berlin is also historically significant. It was founded in 1810 as "Berlin University" by the scholar and educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt. There, Humboldt realized his dream of creating "unity between practice and teaching." Professors didn't just disseminate their knowledge but also had the chance to research and keep up with the latest developments in their fields.

Since the introduction of Bachelor's and Master's degrees, more and more German universities have aimed to incorporate practical experience into the curriculum to ease the transition to the workplace.

Universities of Excellence

Started in 2005-2006 by the federal government, the so-called Excellence Initiative is another program that has changed the university landscape in Germany. It is designed to promote competition among domestic universities in order to improve the overall quality of education. Nine universities (the Technical Universities in Munich and Aachen, the LMU Munich, the FU Berlin as well as the universities in Konstanz, Heidelberg, Goettingen, Karlsruhe and Freiburg) have so far garnered the title of Elite University in light of being home to innovative research and interdisciplinary programs.

More is at stake than just a title, though. Elite Universities in Germany receive additional funding in order to attract and support top researchers and teachers. The Excellence Initiative also includes support for other universities in specific areas of their curriculum.

German universities have partnerships with other institutions worldwide in order to prepare their students for the global job market. Economics and mechanical engineering are among the most popular degrees pursued by foreign students in Germany.

Author: Gaby Reucher (gsw)
Editor: Kate Bowen