Altogether, there are nearly 400 institutions of higher education (Hochschulen), including universities, in Germany. Only one fifth of them are private institutions. They offer unique subjects to German and international students that may not be found at a state-funded university. Management students in Germany may also prefer completing their studies at a private business school to a public university.
The number of private universities in Germany is increasing, but the majority of students opt to study at a state-funded Universität or Hochschule. They still dominate the traditional academic fields and offer a wide range of less popular subjects as well. Today, you can choose from almost 16.000 different degree courses at institutions of higher education in Germany. The number of master’s programs in particular has recently increased.
Students can choose from about 110 universities (Universitäten) and technical universities (technische Universitäten) and ca. 220 universities of applied sciences (Fachhochschulen). Most students are enrolled at one of these institutions. The creative and artistically inclined students, however, apply at one of 58 art, film, or music colleges (Kunst-/Film-/Musikhochschulen). The remaining institutions fit neither category, though: They cater mostly to future theologians or civil servants, who all take their degrees at highly specialized institutions.
Germany’s system of higher education has been undergoing fundamental changes since the so-called “Bologna Reform” was started in 1997. The ambitious goal to harmonize universities throughout the European Union has led to an enormous increase in degree courses to choose from. Since there used to be no bachelor and master degrees at German universities, students used to graduate with only the magister artium and the Diplom (comparable to a Master of Arts and a Master of Science, respectively). Programs for bachelors and masters had to be created. However, as of early 2014, a number of academic institutions are still in a phase of transition or have decided to continue certain degree courses. Therefore, students can sometimes decide between old and new programs, which co-exist in numerous departments.
Things can get even more confusing when you take into account that regulations between the various federal states may vary. For students enrolled in some degree programs, this means that switching to a different university in another Bundesland may be difficult or even impossible. Teachers in particular can suffer from this federalized framework. If you study to become a teacher, a lawyer, or a theologian, you need to take a special exam (Staatsexamen) either held by the church (for theologians) or by the federal state where you want to work. In practice, young trainee teachers who have successfully completed their degree in one German state may have to acquire additional qualifications before teaching in another.
However, taking a bachelor’s or a master’s is far less complicated: you can get a B.A. or B.Sc. after 3 or 4 years of university education; after this, you can apply for a master’s course, which is scheduled for another year or two. Only an M.A. or M.Sc. allows you to become a Ph.D. student, though.
Universities in Germany also offer a variety of international and bilingual degrees, more than 740 programs altogether (most of them for master’s degrees and Ph.D. students, though). The most popular language in the classroom is English, but there are courses in French, Spanish, and Italian as well. For an overview of international programs, please have a look at the website of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD – Deutscher Akademischer Austausch-Dienst). The DAAD is one of the most important institutions for international students to turn to – see page two of this article for further details.
One reason why the Bologna Reform has received a lot of criticism from Germany’s more politicized students is the impact it has had on curricula and daily schedules. Compared to institutions in other countries, universities in Germany – especially in the humanities and social sciences – used to allow their students quite a lot of freedom in regard to their curriculum, their academic focus, and the duration of their studies. Until recently, a considerable number of students chose to work part-time to earn a living, thus taking longer to complete their studies. With almost 28 years of age, the average German graduate was rather old when he or she entered the workforce at last. This was of the major incentives for politicians to encourage reforms. Today’s students face a lot more pressure to obtain their degree within a prescribed period of three to six years.
However, many scholars and students considered this reform to be a “sellout” of traditions held in high regard at most every German Universität and Hochschule, with their emphasis on self-reliance and academic freedom. Although studying in Germany no longer requires that much self-discipline and self-organization, international students may still perceive it as such. To these foreign students, the former system (where master students, for example, were completely responsible for their own schedules and credit points) might have seemed downright chaotic.
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