German (European) education

New Europe-based weblog Escape Indifference has an interesting post on higher education in Germany called Not welcome in Germany. Chris Osman, the author of the weblog, is a student at a German university. In his post he compares German universities with their American counterparts and finds the Unis lacking in both quality and openness. He is really rather nice about it, attributing it all to lower budgets:

German Universities rank pretty low on the world university ranking list. There is a reason for that. One benefit of studying in Germany is that the price of the education is relatively cheap. To be sure I’m paying less than $1,000 a semester, and that is being an international student. However, after diving into the program it becomes apparent that this does have a price. The universities just do not have any money to put toward its institutions and finding good professors. Furthermore students do not have easy access to print services, good literature, or even to the professors themselves.

I do not know if this is true for all German universities, but I was struck by another comment he made on the mentality of the German students themselves:

If you have ever attempted to attend a lecture, you are met with many distractions such as people talking, walking in and out constantly, as well as being called a “Streber” if you show any remote interest in a subject. In fact, I can readily compare it to the attitude that is found through American High Schools, which makes the price of the education a probable reason for this.

Funny enough, I noticed the very same thing when I was studying in Belgium. My first year in higher education was eerily similar to my years in a Belgian high school. The front rows of the classes were occupied by students who were considered by the rest to be “Strebers”. In the back rows you found the “tourists”, students who tended to disappear after the first year. Much of this had to do with the fact that higher education in Belgium, as in Germany, is relatively cheap compared to other countries, allowing a great number of students to “travel around” a bit and try out different schools.

Even so, after the “weeding” of the first year, with drop-out rates of sometimes seventy percent or more, those who made it through the selections were in my experience definitely motivated to get a degree. So maybe Chris is just experiencing a bout of first-year tourism. He did not mention what year he is in.

What I found more disturbing was his following comment:

Additionally, German attitudes toward international students is very standoffish and unforgiving. Germany is ranked very low in terms of what they call “Integrationspolitik” and the classroom is a direct representation of that.

followed by some comments from fellow expat-students along the lines of

“If they were in my country, we would show them the excitement of being new and foreign, and would attempt to make them feel at home. I just don’t feel at home here.”

When I was a student foreigners were not a problem at all. But maybe that is because I was at a school for translators and interpreters. On top of that the Erasmus Programme, which brought in most of the foreign students at our school, was still new and exciting. I was an Erasmus student myself and I still have fond memories of my stint at Hull University in England.

So, here is my question to our readers. What is your experience, if you have one, as a foreign student at a European university? Do you find the quality of education, compared to your own country, satisfying? And how do you feel about the integration of foreign students abroad? Secondly, for our German readers or people like Chris who are studying or have studied in Germany, can you corroborate Chris’ experiences? It would be nice to get a bit of a general idea, or at least a debate, about education in Europe.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture by Guy La Roche. Bookmark the permalink.

About Guy La Roche

Dutch translator and subtitler living in Brittany with his three cats. Has also lived in the Flemish part of Belgium. Speaks English rather fluently and in a former life used to have a decent command of Spanish. Knows swear words in German and Russian. Not quite francophone yet, but slowly getting there. Vaguely centrist observer of the world around him, extremely naive and, sometimes, rather proud of it. Writes Venale Pecus.

24 thoughts on “German (European) education

  1. I was a student last year at the Royal Conservatory of the Netherlands, which is not a university, but is an institution of higher learning. The entire school is very international, especially in my program, Sonology, which is taught in English.

    Tuition is also very cheap, compared to America, but the students all seemed to be serious. Some departments tolerated slackers. Some did not. All the Sonology students were dedicated. This could be a cultural difference between Germany and the Netherlands, or it could be that I was just in an exceptionally good environment.

    I wish the conservatory granted PhDs. I would still be there if it did.

    I felt more at home studying in the Netherlands than I have any place outside of California, including the east coast of the US.

  2. I was an ERASMUS student, at TUHH in Harburg, later rather notorious for one of my fellow students, a chap called Mohammed Atta. I think he was in on my town planning lectures.

    Ahem. I found myself hanging around with a lot of the other foreign students, but sufficient locals to feel that it was actually a German university, and they were extremely friendly and welcoming, we ended up going all over the place; Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Utrecht, Copenhagen, Luebeck, Bremen, the Harz, Sylt. Not the mention the Reeperbahn.

    As for quality of education, I didn’t actually end up going to that many lectures, having been tipped the wink that the cultural and language experience was what counted, so I spent more time in the student bar and, um, exploring the town, although I did learn a good deal about flood defences, which are a local speciality.

    The place itself was half-brand-new (and very smart) and half old sheds, which have been replaced, so there’s money there somewhere.

  3. Uni hat mit Bildung zu tun, nicht psychologische Persönlichkeitsentwicklung. Vielleicht das ist zu eng, oder stark für der Student, oder ist er vielleicht noch ein Schüler. Deutsche machen in Gymnasium was meisten Amerikaner in ihre erste zwei Jahre in College machen.
    Ich bin eine ausländerin und habe in den US, UK und hier in Deutschland (wo ich jetzt bin) studiert. Man muss viele Sprachprüfungen und verschiedene Erkentnisprüfungen machen, damit er einschreiben als Doktorand kann. Wo bitte (außer die Schweiz, oder La Sorbonne), gibt’s etwas ähnlich? Nicht Corp. Harvard oder die Boy’s Club Cambridge. Nein, die Amerikaner und Englander können es nicht schaffen. Die Persönlichkeitsentwicklung ist einfach wichtiger.

  4. “Uni hat mit Bildung zu tun, nicht psychologische Persönlichkeitsentwicklung (…) Deutsche machen in Gymnasium was meisten Amerikaner in ihre erste zwei Jahre in College machen.”

    Good point.

  5. You may be right about the US, but the top British universities don’t emphasise personal development, nor do they imitate an Abitur-like programme of basic courses in diverse subjects. If you go to ‘boys’ club’ (actually, about 48% female overall) Cambridge to study history, say, history and historical analysis is exactly what you’ll be taught and tested on. In most subjects, Cambridge exams are regarded as among the toughest in the (Western) world.

  6. american and british phds have no standing worth in germany. why? they are too simple. in germany when someone writes dr before their name and the doctoral work comes from the us or the uk it is seen as title misuse. cambridge is not an exception.

  7. I can only comment on having done a Erasmus exchange to Uppsala University. I found it a very opening and welcoming place, among the staff and students. Not once was I made to feel like an outsider! The same when I did research in the Czech Republic and Denmark.

    However, something I noticed in those places as well as at my undergrad, MSc and PhD studies in the UK, was that if any group of students did not intergrate well with the rest it was the Americans (not all, I made a number of American friends, but they tended to be ‘alternative’). They tended to stick together more than any other group (maybe with the exception of Greek and Chinese), which was strange as language was not the issue here. Initally, I was actually able to tell if someone was Canadian because they would sound American but not be with other Americans! I dont know if the guy who wrote the article was American, though.

  8. ‘German students learn during gymnasium what most Americans do during their first two years of college’: Maybe. I’ve heard that, but I’m not convinced. A big push in the current German educational system is to actually get rid of “Thirteenth Grade” (Abitur) and merge the learning into 12 years to come in line with international standards.

    Also, the law forbidding the use of the title doctor when the degree was earned outside of Germany was instituted during the 1930s, not a good time for laws, shall we say. It’s being gotten rid of anyway after a number of high profile punsihments for obviously good but foreign professors accidentally using a title they thought they earned.

    As for the German doctoral system being less simple than the American one, they force you out in three years never having taken a class in anything other than your exact field. Yes, you do research for those three years, but more in the obeying orders kind of way than in developing a coherent project with a useful question. The theory is, if you’re a PhD student you should already know everything from your diploma work. I attended courses in physics and chemistry during my free time at one of the new “elite” universities here, and was in no way impressed with the pedagogy at any level. Some students come out fine, of course, and would have done well under any system.

    Socially, it’s always hard. I don’t dispute that. But Germans divide work and friends differently than Americans do and you need to program yourself to look for friends in different places. It’s still possible.

    I’m an American, work in Germany, did my doctoral work in materials science at UC Berkeley and my first two degrees at MIT.

  9. “american and british phds have no standing worth in germany. why? they are too simple. in germany when someone writes dr before their name and the doctoral work comes from the us or the uk it is seen as title misuse. cambridge is not an exception.”

    This is a bad joke.

    The German PhD is the second academic degree and, in the areas with which I am familiar, does not require coursework above and beyond that for the first degree. An American PhD is the third academic degree, reflecting greater depth of learning and scholarly aptitude; in the social sciences, it’s closer to the German habil than to the Doktorgrad. I got better methodology and other graduate-level (post-graduate, for the Brits here) courses for my M.A. than I saw for the PhD candidates at the University of Munich, supposedly one of Germany’s best.

    It’s no accident that there are many more people in German business and industry with PhD’s than in other OECD countries: the degree is much simpler to obtain.

  10. I was born in the Netherlands, but grew up in New Zealand, so they’re really both my countries. I did part of a B.A. at Victoria University but wasn’t happy with how easy it was so went to NL. I was able to transfer a few credits but essentially started over on what would be a four year M.A. (Unis didn’t do B.A.s then, it wasn’t a “real” degree.)

    The course was immediately very specialised, too much so IMO, I would’ve welcomed a more Anglo approach. The Dutch first years clearly had a higher level of education than the Kiwis, but the Kiwis were much more independent in their lives, so I felt more at home in that country. No one got hassles for being a Streber.

    The worst thing was that the organisation in Leiden was a disaster, employers have to essentially take my word for it that I’ve done certain things. And of course, most of the students weren’t prepared to protest.

    The teaching quality was mixed but higher in NZ, I think they might’ve actually had some training. What didn’t help the Dutch was that they would occasionally try to do stuff in English.

    I’m actually just about to start a short course to get a post-grad certificate here in the UK, so it’ll be interesting to compare. I haven’t been hugely impressed with the info available so far though.

  11. In my opinion Erasmus students do not qualify very well for being full time foreign or international students. They qualify much better for the term “tourist students” :). During my studies in Hamburg I lived shortly in a dorm which hosted most of the sesonal Erasmus students of Hamburg. Well gess what, they socialized mostly with one another had of course much fun because their main occupation seemed to be partying 🙂 but didn’t really integrate into the German university system due to their very simple course plan. Neither did they really get to know life in Germany. Well, maybe I’m wrong but my point is that in 5 or 6 months with much of the things pre-arranged (housing, university, money) you don’t get much from the country you are visiting/studying.

    My experience as a foreign student in Germany (I studied the whole time in Germany) was a mixed one. Being from a non-OECD country or even worse from third world countries brought you almost immediatelly very low in the social perception of most German students. Germans have a distinguished social-class awareness which they use in most of their choices. The problem is, I think, that they apply for their non-OECD foreign students the same social scala as the one they use for their guestworkers (gastarbeiter) which is obviously wrong. So, chances for foreign students to socialize with their German co-students are then not very high. This keeps foreign students from learning German perfectly even after many years in Germany. Not knowing German very well keeps them from integrating fully and so on. The whole thing has something of a devil’s circle. The funny thing is that most full time foreign students in Germany come from non-OECD countries (Russia, China, India, Turkey, Balkans, Africa, etc.) as German universities are, well, not the best but comperatively cheap. At the end you get plenty of the best foreign students leaving or planning to switch Germany for the US after their graduation.

  12. “american and british phds have no standing worth in germany. why? they are too simple. in germany when someone writes dr before their name and the doctoral work comes from the us or the uk it is seen as title misuse. cambridge is not an exception.”

    kate, this is not a joke. there is an obvious difference between the natural sciences, and the humanities. i am speaking about the humanities, the traditional subject of education.

    point to one professor in a german humanities department who did his or her phd in america or the uk.

    the unis in the us and the uk have more money for industrial related research, but even if they had that much money for the humanities it would not make a difference with the outcome because the exam standards and language requirements are too low to motivate quality disciplined work.

    the law has changed in germany (about american phds) but the unis in the us and the uk haven’t… why would they? they are already making enough money.

  13. Thorsten, first of all, I wasn’t the one who said the title misuse was a joke, that was someone else. I was merely the one who mentioned that the law was passed by the national socialists in the 1930s and was therefore not perhaps an example of a law you wanted to be touting.

    I’m mildly surprised that you don’t consider science to be part of an education, but we’ll leave that aside 🙂

    My sister, who studied English and Philosophy in USA and Germany, had one professor at FU Berlin with a degree from Brandeis, but of course I don’t know any personally.

    It seemed to me that she didn’t find her coursework in Germany any harder. Her opinion was that they still hadn’t deconstructed the canon of “great thinkers” so their education was more homogeneous. For Anglistik specifically, American PhDs tended to organize themselves more genealogically than historically, like African American Studies for example, and then consider how race as a concept has evolved. In contrast, in Germany, it would be more African American History 1800-1830, and every possible thing that happened.

    In more general terms, Americans humanities majors are less politically savvy than in Germany, and maybe less reliable on the body of general knowledge, but are more inclined to have a unique take on things which can be applied OUTSIDE the academy. In Germany for example, there is no shame in just studying German Idealism, whereas in USA the humanities have a bit of an inferiority complex and therefore focus on pseudo-practical applications. It’s a difference in personality rather than rigor.

  14. “Uni hat mit Bildung zu tun, nicht psychologische Persönlichkeitsentwicklung”

    This is a very interesting observation. Having been in a Masters program here in Germany for about 9 months now, I knew that there were differences in “Uni-Cultures,” but I really didn’t know the “why.” This could be very likely, as naturally the University culture in America has borrowed quite a bit from the UK. However, I would disagree that the Universities in America place sole value on “Persönlichkeitsentwicklung” and we did have quite a challenging curriculum in the form of getting a good education. But at the same time I can’t argue against the importance given to the values of networking. This could be a reason why there are a lot of extra curricular opportunities for students in the form of various clubs, and sororities and fraternities.

    However, if German Universities place almost sole value in “Education” then there should be enough funding in order to accommodate this value. Interestingly enough, die Zeit has posted an article ( regarding how the University in Bonn is not using the tuition in order to improve the current infrastructure, but rather saving it in order to keep the current employment of professors and staff in the philosophy department sustainable or risk it going completely under.

    I’m not really trying to argue which is better, the German or American system, but rather if I personally decided to get an MA in Germany, and find myself working in the US, will I be competitive in relation to other American students, being an American? This is an interesting question because I have a sneaky feeling that everyone is now being able to have an easier look at what a lot of other countries are doing in comparison to 20 years ago. And if this is in fact the case, how will the current situation regarding the ways German Universities are funded be affected?

  15. The point about personal development is indeed interesting. I don’t remember that angle being pushed so much in New Zealand, but it’s true that there was a broad range of extra curricular activities available for students. I was very disappointed to find much of that missing when I went to Leiden.

  16. i like what everyone is writting here. Kate, my sincere apologies for mixing up your name with what Doug said.
    i think that there are good things in america and in the uk. i was not making a joke and i did not mean to be sarcastic or ironic and ineed not sardonic or look down on a person.
    the german system is better, simply, i think. i am happy to compare them. look at academic journals, in the humanities, for the us and england. what do you find? you find english articles citing english articles and books which cite other english article and books. the whole thing is homocultural. in america it should be outlawed to print an article and only cite english articles, like americans outlaw gay marriage.
    it is a shame that the german system is changing because of the money culture that is so big in our small world. we are becoming more and more dominated by one language and people who only know that language and way of thinking.
    the words here are not an insult that i am going to say: americans, do not come to germany, keep going to the uk for your tourist studies, your system is good in your country and you should make it better, but do not come here trying to change things here and make them like your simple egalitarian system. ut voca non se doctor si quod magister artium sis.

  17. Thorsten is doing quite well at illustrating Eni’s argument, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Chris Osman’s as cited in the post. (I’d also be interested in an explication of what Bildung is, if it is not the development of a person; otherwise, it starts to look like Wortnebel without much Aufklärung — or in the modern lingua franca, a distinction without a difference.)

    Chris, as to whether your German MA will be competitive in America, I think it depends entirely on the field and on what kind of league you’re competing in. Is an MA in BWL from Bielefeld competitive with an MBA from Harvard? Is an MA in international relations from Munich competitive with one from the Nitze School at Hopkins? Marginally closer, but still no.

    The difference, quite apart from arguments about content, is that a German MA is a first degree, generally without much of a professional network attached. An American MA is a second degree (except for the ‘terminal’ MA given as a consolation prize for not completing a PhD course, which is a whole different kettle of fish) that often aims at a particular profession and comes with entry points into regional or national professional networks.

    It’s also a bit self-defeating to talk about American higher education as if it were all of one piece. (Harvard and Bunker Hill Community College are both tertiary institutions in Massachusetts, but lumping them together will not get you far in most analyses.) German universities used to pretend there was greater similarity, but that turned out to be self-defeating in a different way.

  18. Interestingly, there are a lot of German staff in my department, and Germans have played a major role in the department’s development for decades. But the Germans here at the moment have mixed opinions on the British versus the German system. I’ve heard some of them suggest one reason German universities don’t have many non-German staff is that German universities have much more of an old boys’ network – getting a job is all about who rather than what you know, even more so than in the UK, and foreigners generally aren’t going to have the same social connections in Germany as someone who has grown up in the German system. I don’t know how the UK compares with Germany in overall research output, but in maths at least, I don’t think there’s any sense that academics in either country are producing better research than those in the other. (There is more of an argument that say Chinese universities aren’t quite up to European standards in maths research yet, but that’s another matter.)

    Also, I don’t know how it works in humanities, but most European publications in maths are in English nowadays. It’s like how a few hundred years ago, Western European scholars all published in Latin. I read plenty of articles written by Germans, sometimes in German. But usually I don’t even need to use any language skills, because German mathematicians generally publish their work in English (not a translation – the original publication is in English, even if it’s published in Mathematische Zeitschrift or whatever). I don’t think this is stifling expression so much as enhancing communication. After all, it’s desirable to know a few different languages (and to think in them – I agree with Thorsten here that Anglophones are sometimes a bit ‘bornés’ on this score), but no-one can be expected to draw together research published in dozens of different languages all over the world. Much mathematics is in any case produced not by individuals, but by teams of 2-4 people, often of different nationalities – and in that case the language they talk to each other in is nearly always English.

    As for talking about the ‘Anglo’ system, this term doesn’t make sense because the UK and US systems are very different. Even as far as it is possible to generalise about US institutions, it usually doesn’t apply to the UK, and vice versa. For instance, undergraduates in the US tend to do a broad spread of subjects, whereas the UK is just the opposite: we specialise early and tend to pursue very narrow research topics (sometimes too narrow IMO). The Australian, NZ and Canadian systems are different again. Talking about them as if they are all the same is as meaningless as talking about ‘the continental education system’.

    Maybe humanities are fundamentally different, I don’t know; I can only speak about what I have experience of.

  19. My (Irish) mother in law still has quite a good grasp of German because when she studied Chem. in Oxford around WW2 most of the science books and articles were in German. Or so she claims 😉

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  22. when she studied Chem. in Oxford around WW2 most of the science books and articles were in German. Or so she claims

    Yes, the Germans really dominated most fields of science in Europe up to the second world war; this is something else I remember from Vienna, which perhaps I should have pointed up more, the sense of one of the world’s great intellectual moments having gone irretrievably – specifically because the people who made it got killed, exiled or censored.

  23. Fritz Stern opens Einstein’s German World by recalling a conversation he had with Raymond Aron, in which Aron said, “You know, it could have been their century.” And indeed it could have been in many ways. Math, computers, rockets, chemistry, philology, and more I probably am completely unaware of. The current US system of graduate education was lifted whole cloth from Germany and spread from the Johns Hopkins University to the rest of American academia. But Humboldt’s animating ideas are getting on toward 200 years old at this point, and actual German practice is both far from those ideas and far from contemporary best global practices. Aron’s assessment is both conditional and past tense.

  24. Doug,
    neque tamen responsum ad quaestio mei expecto. unus professor quaeso!

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