German Higher Education in Transition

Prof. Dr. Dr.h.c. Ulrich Teichler,


Debates about the future of higher education policies in countries such as England, France, Japan and Germany are quite ambivalent: on the one hand, we note a certain degree of pride in the traditions of the individual country and also an acknowledgement that one cannot change one’s tradition easily, and on the other hand efforts are made to lead or to follow world-wide trends of “modernisation” of higher education. In smaller European countries, such as Finland, we observe more frequently a readiness to depart of major features of the past.

In Germany, 200 years of the Humboldtian concept of the modern university are celebrated in 2009 and 2010. Around 1970, many wide-reaching new experiments in higher education were pursued in Germany. However, as regards to currently fashionable higher education policies – strong university management, government steering from a distance, important role of evaluation, growth of indicator-based and incentive-based steering – Germany was not a front-runner of reforms. As a consequence, many transitions in higher education are at stake in Germany somewhat later than in other countries, for example in the Netherlands.

Student, Curricula and Graduate Employment

According to OECD statistics, the entry rate to higher education in Germany (to programmes leading at least to a bachelor degree) has grown to about 40 percent, but it continues to be among the lowest among economically advanced countries; for example Finland and Norway among the European countries. Still scepticism is widespread whether we need so many graduates, and employers warn that the strength of the German vocational training system should not be undermined by too much expansion of higher education. Surveys of German university graduates have shown that the relative small graduation rate helps to keep privileges for the graduates: their early careers look better on average than those of the graduates from most other European countries. In sum: The majority of experts believe that Germany does not need entry rates and graduation rates close to the OECD average in order to be a modern and economically successful society.

In addition, a policy in increasing the enrolment rate in higher education in Germany faces the difficulty that a demographic increase of the numbers of youth of the typical entry age to higher education is predicted for Germany. A consensus was reached between the German Federal government and governments of the Länder – the latter supervise and fund higher education in Germany – to increase the number of study places in the next few years by more than 20 percent to cope with this demographic bulk in combination with growing enrolment rates.

Germany was among the countries initiating the Sorbonne Declaration in 1998 and the Bologna Declaration in 1999. As a consequence, Bachelor and Master programmes were introduced both in universities and Fachhochschulen instead of long, theoretically oriented university programmes with a first degree equivalent to a master, and a somewhat shorter practice-oriented Fachhochschule programmes. Many university professors in Germany opposed the idea that the university should prepare graduates to leave higher education on a level lower than the master level, and concern was widespread that employers would not like to recruit university bachelors because they would neither be theoretically trained as well as the old university graduates nor practically trained as well as Fachhochschule graduates. Recent graduate surveys, however, show that university bachelor graduates face lesser problems on the labour markets as these negative views had suggested. But critique is frequently voiced now that the first generation of bachelor programmes has been completely overburdened by high numbers of mandatory courses and large numbers of examinations; this was caused by efforts of many professors to make the new bachelor programmes similar to the old long university programmes. Currently, efforts are underway to create more realistic curricula of bachelor programmes.

Concurrent with the introduction of Bachelor and Master programmes, a system of accreditation of study programmes was introduced in Germany. Prior to that, national commissions had developed framework regulations for each field of study, and the governments of the German Länder examined newly proposed curricula and approved them, if they were compatible with such frameworks. The new accreditation system was initially viewed as helping to develop a greater diversity of study programmes and as strengthening the influence of the universities on curriculum development. In the mean time, however, critical voices about accreditation prevail. Accreditation is seen as being costly, time-consuming and slow; many actors suggest the introduction of an accreditation system of institutions of higher education as a whole whereby also the ability of the universities is examined to supervise their curricula properly. Moreover, concern is widespread now that curricula have become so diverse that the old German tradition is endangered according to which students can be mobile between universities anytime during their course of study.

“Employability” is currently a catch-phrase in Europe for calls to transform curricula in higher education in such a way that students are to be more directly prepared for their future work tasks. Although the rhetoric looks similar across Europe, the reform efforts vary dramatically by country. In Germany, no need is seen to make curricula more highly specialized or to emphasize a practical orientation more strongly. This does not come as a surprise because internationally comparative surveys have shown that the percentage of students participating in long periods of internships in Germany is about three times as high as in England. And also the number of students doing “arubaito” which is closely related to their field of study and their future occupation is more than twice as high in Germany than in England. Instead, strong efforts are made recently at German institutions of higher education to strengthen the “key skills” of their students. Most bachelor programmes reserve now about 10 percent of the courses for the enhancement of “key skills”, i.e. competences not linked to specific disciplines, for example problem-solving abilities, communication skills, leadership competences, abilities to work in teams etc. And, in fact, both recent surveys of employers and of university graduates suggest that employers pay clearly more attention in the recruitment of graduates to key skills as well as to international competences than they had done in the past.

Research, Academic Careers and Diversification of Universities

In recent years, governments in most economically advanced countries seek for means to reduce public expenditure. This is a response to exploding costs of health, pensions and social welfare as a consequence of the ageing society and the increase of social disparities as well as of a growing influence of economic concepts according to which a weaker governmental role might be beneficial for economic growth. Germany belongs to those countries where research is seen as the only expectation: Most experts and politicians agree that expenditures for research should be increased in order to stimulate technological innovation and future economic growth.

The heads of governments of the European Union signed in 2000 the “Lisbon Declaration”. In order to make the economy in Europe “the most competitive in the world”, public and private expenditures for research and development on average of the European countries should be increased from somewhat more than 2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product around 2000 to 3 percent by 2010. In Germany, public expenditures for research, which had been slightly above the European average in 2000, actually were increased, but neither the German private and public research expenditures nor the respective European average were high enough to reach in 2010.

In the aftermath of the Lisbon conference, certainly the view spread that universities have to compete with each other worldwide. More actors and experts paid attention to statistical findings such as the following:

In Germany, two concerns were expressed most frequently in this respect in recent years. First, the growing global attention paid to select “world-class universities” was viewed as creating disadvantages for German universities. According to the popular Chinese rankings of world-class universities, German higher education fared very well, if one looks at the top 500 universities, but unsatisfactory, according to German expectations, if one looks only at the top 50 or 100 universities. This finding is understandable for two reasons. First, a substantial proportion of high-class publicly funded research in Germany is located in research institutes outside universities, for example in institutes of the Max Planck Society or in those of the Helmholtz Community. Second, Germany is among the countries with the flattest prestige hierarchy of universities. In the past, Germany considered this desirable as contributing to the mobility of professors and students, as assuring a good quality all over the country and as a meritocratic reward of the quality of the individual professor rather than as reward of the historically grown reputation of institutions.

Recently, the view spread that the reputation of German higher education only could be strengthened if funds and research quality were substantially more strongly concentrated within a few outstanding universities. In 2007 and 2008, in the framework of the so-called “excellence initiative”, nine universities were chosen as places of excellent research, and special financial means were provided for five years in order to improve their chance to become academically more superior to all other German universities.

The second issue frequently discussed in recent years as regards the future quality of research is that of the academic career. There is not any shortage felt of bright young university graduates opting for an academic career. But the 1992 comparative survey of the academic profession had shown that German junior staff had a lower job satisfaction than they colleagues in other economically advanced countries. And concern grew in recent years that talented German academics in science and engineering might prefer a career in the U.S. to that in Germany.

In response, three directions of reform were pursued. First, in doctoral training, the number of doctoral programmes was increased. Instead of the historically prevailing supervision by individual professors, doctoral candidates were helped to enhance a broad range of competences, e.g. teaching and research management, in addition to work on their thesis. Second, in order to reduce the gap between the power and prestige of university professors and junior academic staff, many efforts were made to strengthen independent academic work of junior staff, among others through the introduction of junior professorships since 2002. Third, pay scales for professors were changed in 2004. Salary increases according to seniority were abolished, and negotiations for increased salaries were not anymore confined, as in the past, to the occasion of being offered a professorship by another university. Rather, professors now can negotiate their salaries with the individual university for a broad range of reasons, and achievements of professors can be assessed regularly in order to decide about possible salary increases.


For some years, we note similar trends in reforms as regards university governance in continental European countries and Japan. In the U.S. and the United Kingdom, for various historical reasons related to the weaker government role in the past, somewhat different policies are pursued, even though some of the traditional characteristics of governance in the U.S. have had an influence on the currently popular ideas of university governance in continental Europe. Without any doubts, it can be said that these kinds of reforms started later and were undertaken more cautiously at the outset in Germany than for example in the Netherlands, in some of the Nordic European countries or in Austria and Switzerland.

In Germany, we note a similarly broad transformation of governance as in other countries, for example a less detailed supervision by government and clearer formulations for policy goals instead, more elements of indicator-based funding of higher education institutions, more elements of formal autonomy of universities, a stronger power of the university leadership, the establishment of boards with external representatives, the establishment of many mechanisms of evaluation and accreditation, and stronger incentive steering in the allocation of research resources and as regards the behaviour of professors.

It is more difficult to describe these types of changes in Germany than in other countries. There are national regulations and other modes in Germany as regards entry to higher education, study programmes and degrees, academic careers, research funding etc., but all regulations as regards organisation, decision-making, and evaluation, except for accreditation, are set on the level of the individual Länder. So, we do not see any typical German pattern, but rather 16 different models alongside.

For example, an analysis of the legislation regarding boards of universities shows striking differences. In six Länder, all the boards members come from outside; in four Länder, the board is comprised by external and internal members, but a majority of external votes is guarantied; regulations in the other six Länder are not clear in this respect or even allow for a dominant power of internals. As a rule, boards are involved in the long-term structural planning of the university, but only in some Länder they can play a major role in the establishment or closure of organisational units of the university or of study programmes. In some Länder, the boards are involved in the election of the university president, in others they can only propose a presidential candidate, and in other Länder, they are not involved at all in the election of the university presidents.


At German universities, international mobility and cooperation are held in high esteem. About ten of the students are foreigners who came to Germany for the purpose of study, and about three percent of students are foreigners who attended already schools in Germany. The number of students studying abroad seems to be smaller, but statistics are weak, because the majority of Germans study abroad for some period, i.e. not for the whole study programme, and the temporary mobile students are not counted in student statistics of various countries. But recent surveys show that almost one fifth of German students have at least spent some period abroad for the purpose of study, and that almost the same proportion has been abroad for practical work experiences, summer schools or language courses before they eventually graduate.

In contrast to the United Kingdom and Australia, it would be viewed as old-fashioned nationalism in Germany, if universities charge higher tuition fees from foreign students than from German students. It is also clear that both, incoming and outgoing mobility of students is encouraged in Germany. Temporary incoming and outgoing mobility of academic staff also is strongly encouraged. In contrast, there are some barriers for the immigration of foreign academic staff, and one wants to keep brain drain of academics in bound, even if no regulation prevents emigration. A proportion of currently almost 10 percent of foreigners among academic staff is viewed as normal.

In recent years, the German government in cooperation with the German Academic Exchange Service encourages the establishment of German universities abroad in cooperation with local partners, for example in Turkey, Egypt, Oman and Vietnam as well as joint study programmes and joint doctoral programmes. The programmes abroad might be strongly influenced by German models, but there is no policy of granting degrees abroad by German institutions or of establishing branch campuses abroad.


We recently note a stronger degree of international convergence of higher education systems in economically advanced countries than in previous decades. But it would be exaggerated to claim that differences have become marginal. Germany has one of the lowest entry rates of students among economically advanced countries but one of the highest quotas of persons being awarded a doctoral degree. Expenses for higher education and research continue to vary substantially by country. Styles of governance continue to vary substantially: According to a recent comparative survey, German university professors more strongly believe than their colleagues in the U.S., Japan, the United Kingdom, Finland and Norway that they continue to have a strong say in academic matters. Germany belongs to those countries where both inward and outward international mobility is held in high esteem, where foreign students are not made to cash cows and where international cooperation of universities is not meant to mean superimposition of programmes and degrees. We might expect further convergence, but not a fading away of substantial differences in the foreseeable future.