Students Give German Universities a C-Minus
Free tuition doesn't compensate for out-of-date courses and withdrawn professors
MNSTER, GERMANY — IN contrast to the 1,200-year-old city that surrounds it, the university of Munster, founded in 1780, seems hip. Yet many students here say Germany's higher education is stuck in the Dark Ages.
Outdated curriculums, jam-packed classes, a lack of funds, and unresponsive professors are all part of the problem here and at other universities, students say. Many of them worry they aren't getting prepared for life after graduation.
''I don't feel appropriately educated,'' says Stefani Buthe, a third-year student at Munster, who plans a career in marketing. ''I have to learn a lot of outdated things, mostly far too theoretical stuff, which I'll never need in my future job.''
Statistics compiled by the Federal Agency for Employment appear to confirm her worries. They show the job market for graduates is contracting, especially in teaching, engineering, and chemistry. About 5 percent of those leaving university won't be able to find a job, the agency says. That's less than the unemployment rate of about 10 percent for the overall German working population, but higher for graduates than in the past.
A key problem with German higher education is its bloated bureaucracy. German universities, with only a few exceptions, are run by the state. Education is tax-funded and free. Any high school graduate who wants to can attend university in Germany.
Though such a system might appear attractive in principle, these days most universities have too many students and not enough money to teach them. Almost 2 million students are registered at German universities, which were designed to handle roughly 900,000.
Many administrators agree with students that the system has to change if universities are to continue producing graduates that keep Germany technologically competitive.
There has been much talk about streamlining graduation requirements and about building new facilities. But there is little money to implement such measures.
In the meantime, it's the students who suffer. Many complain about overcrowding. With 45,000 students, Munster is one of the four largest universities in Germany. Overflow crowds fill its lecture halls, forcing many students to sit on the floor, balancing notebooks on knees.
The byproduct of overcrowding can be a debilitating sense of alienation. ''You become drowned in the masses, and a lot of students suffer severely in this atmosphere of anonymity,'' Ms. Buthe says.
Another source of dissatisfaction is the course structure. It normally takes five years for student to fulfill graduation requirements. Many take longer, and it is not unusual for a new graduate to be in his or her late 20s.
Many say greater coordination in course scheduling could shorten the length of studies. Others say some outdated requirements, such as Latin for humanities students, should be axed. Courses should also take on a more practical character to better equip students for future careers, many say.
''The German tradition is to teach how to think, rather than to prepare for a specific job,'' says Karl-Heinz Hoffmann, a math professor at Munich University who also heads the Scientific Council, an organization devoted to coordinating science and research in Germany.
The aloofness of professors is a sore point with students, too. Professors in Germany enjoy a remarkable degree of autonomy, being responsible only to the state, not to university administrators. They are allowed to teach what they want, essentially when they want. Most oppose change in the system.
Many students say professors aren't accessible and prefer to concentrate on research rather than work with young scholars. About 80 percent of German graduates claim never to have had a substantive discussion with a professor during their entire university stay, according to Reinhard Kahl, a commentator for the Berlin-based Tageszeitung newspaper.
''I get the impression that the universities aren't so much for the students but for the professors. They do what they want and are untouchable as far as criticism goes,'' said Andres Loyo Menk, a second-year student at Munster studying Spanish, English, and politics.
Classroom difficulties are only half the battle for many students. German universities usually don't have a campus in the American sense. During their growth over the centuries, universities grew haphazardly and now are spread across cities. In Munster, the university comprises more than 200 buildings scattered all over town.
Such a layout makes a bicycle an essential tool for learning. It also means there's a lack of social community that the dormitories on American campuses often provide.
In addition, German universities don't house their students. Unless living at home is an option, students are responsible for finding their own housing and feeding themselves. And while the actual education may be state-paid, the cost of living, especially in large cities, can be astronomical by student standards.
Though parents help most students foot their bills, the money from home usually doesn't cover all the costs. Two out of three students work at least part-time during their studies, according to research done by one German students' organization.
Most students say that the fun, companionship, and excitement of discovery outweigh the hassles, making the education experience positive.
But at least a few wonder whether they made the right decision.
''I don't know if I would do it again. Maybe an apprenticeship would have made more sense,'' Buthe says. ''I would be working and earning money by now, instead of still being in school looking at an uncertain future.''
* Part 2 of a two-part series on German education. Part 1 appeared Aug. 7.