While German officials discuss education reform proposals and elite schools, private international universities have started offering Anglo-style degrees to German students and may help public schools along the way.
An American-style graduation at International University Bremen
Choosing the private, tuition-funded International University in Germany wasn't a difficult choice to make for Frank Strzelczyk. At 22, he felt he was too old to go to a traditional German university.
"I wanted to make up time," he said. "I knew that there, I would have a degree in three years. It takes much longer in a German University."
Strzelczyk graduated from the school with a bachelor's degree in information technology in 2002. He now works as a developer for an international software company and is one of a growing number of Germans who choose to opt out of the German academic system. While some people go abroad for internationally-recognized degrees, others are seeking out the limited but growing opportunities at home.
Reform comes slowly
The mediocre reputation of many German universities is partially to blame for this. When a survey in the Times Higher Educational Supplement ranked the best 200 international universities last year, only Heidelberg university made it into the top 50 -- at 47th place.
The University of Heidelberg is ranked 47 out of 200 top universities in the world
Meanwhile, government proposals to reform public schools are moving slowly. As politicians still debate the details of increased spending, private universities are already opening their doors and offering something different.
In the past few years, universities have sprung up -- some are the offspring of US universities, others are collaborations between German officials and academics and partners abroad. Most offer bachelor's degrees in subjects such as business administration or the sciences, while some offer masters, all in highly structured programs. All charge fees of several thousand euros per year -- a lot when compared to the mainly nominal fees at public German universities.
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One of the first to offer such degrees was the International University in Germany, in Bruchsal near Heidelberg in southern Germany, founded in 1998. A small group of professors at nearby universities talked to private business representatives and learned that they would prefer to hire younger, more flexible graduates -- Germans usually graduate from traditional universities in their late 20s.
They also wanted to get out ahead of the Bologna Declaration of 1999, in which about 40 European countries committed themselves to adopting the two-tiered system of the Anglo-Saxon countries as a way to increase the international competitiveness of their higher education systems.
They worked with state and federal officials who provided seed money and former barracks and reached out to universities in the US such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Florida. Private corporate sponsorship, federal aid and students fees have made the university financially viable, officials said.
Not a German institution
These days, the university instructs about 100 students, 40 percent of whom are German, in three-year bachelor programs in English that include an internship and a semester abroad and cost 10,000 euros annually. They aim to increase their student population to 400 in the next few years.
"We were started by Germans and mostly run administratively by Germans, but we are not a German university," said Michael Lehmann, who handles recruitment for the university. "We are truly an international university, with international students and professors and an international outlook."
IUB graduates celebrate
Another private university, The International University Bremen (IUB), was the brainchild of two mathematics professors, one German and another from Rice University in Texas. The state government of Bremen supported the initiative, hoping for it to be a thorn to the public Bremen institution, which suffers from a poor reputation.
In 1999, the university admitted the first students, at a cost of 15,000 euros tuition annually. They continue to run at a deficit but hope that will change and funding comes in from private donors and alumni.
"Our programs have certain advantages," said Sebastian Springer, a professor of biochemistry at the university, who has been at the institution since the beginning. "Students know when they will graduate, learn in small classes, have easy access to their professors, and earn degrees that internationally recognized."
A real question still being answered is how do employers accept these new degrees. School officials admit that this is still an issue.
"We graduate very competitive people and they go to very reputable universities in the US and the UK," Springer of the IUB said. "But some still are asking, 'What is a bachelor's degree and what can be taught in three years,' and will still choose someone with a good old traditional German degree. But that skepticism is going away with awareness and in five years, such degrees will be common as they are required to be."
Students demonstrating against tuition fees at German public universities
Another downside is the tuition. All the private universities are non-profit and say that they offer grants to those who can't afford the fees. But in Germany, where most students study for free, the idea of paying tuition is still controversial, particularly in a country where parents pay high taxes in exchange for such services as education.
A beacon for others?
Still, education experts are applauding the experiment and believe more will arise.
"It's a very recent phenomena and a very interesting one," said Jürgen Enders of the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers, an international association founded at the University of Kassel. "To what extent they will be successful or have an impact on the traditional system is hard to say yet. But even if they don't turn out to be very successful, it was important that they began and provided this innovative kick."
Will private colleges help to make classes at public universities smaller?
Enders also added that such new projects can provide a good example for public universitites. That is what Springer and his counterparts at the new international universities hope as well.
"We are a beacon for this country's education institutions," he said. "They look to us but can't emulate us yet. And even if we don't survive, we will have shown what is possible. German universities will be better because of us -- and they will have to."