Germany's 'Academic Bulimia' Is the New University System Harming Students?
German universities are more crowded than ever, and controversial changes to how quickly students must finish their studies have dramatically altered their academic lives. But many worry that these changes are also taking a serious toll on their private lives and personal well-being.
Lea Blume, 20, is already getting off to a bad start. Though the first lecture of the semester is still a week away, she has already missed her first event.
Blume is standing in front of a lecture hall at Berlin's Humboldt University, looking exhausted. She's surrounded by other young people who are also there for orientation event scheduled for all the new students who couldn't make it on the previous day. Yesterday's orientation was the main one, Blume explains, "but at that point I didn't even know whether I'd been accepted yet."
In fact, she doesn't know today either, even though lectures will begin soon. All she can do is hope.
At first, Blume was accepted at a university in Frankfurt. It wasn't her first choice, but she felt she could live with it, so she paid her tuition and mailed in her documents. Then she was accepted at Berlin's Free University, which she preferred, so she asked to have her documents returned from Frankfurt. She forwarded them to Berlin and found a place to stay there.
In the end, she was also accepted at her school of choice, Berlin's Humboldt University. Hoping to expedite matters so that she would know this week where she would actually be enrolled, Blume picked up her records herself at the Free University and carted them across the city to Humboldt University. The admissions office is still reviewing them.
An Onslaught of New Students
The new semester begins in the next few days. And this autumn, like every autumn, young people full of hope and curiosity are descending on German universities in droves. But, this time, there are more of them than ever before. Now that the advanced high-school diploma known as the Abitur is no longer an absolute prerequisite for attending university, more young people are allowed to enroll. And more -- about half of every graduating class -- also want to.
Other factors contributing to the increase in new students are the recent elimination of conscription, in addition to the fact that some German states have shortened the 13-year period of schooling normally required to obtain the Abitur.
According to the Federal Statistical Office, there were a record 2,217,604 students registered at German universities in the 2010/2011 winter semester. A new record is also expected this year.
This onslaught of new students puts the higher education system under pressure, with many universities already filled to capacity. It also puts pressure on students, who are experiencing academic freedom in closer quarters and under tighter organizational constraints. In the past, attending university was seen as the epitome of freedom, a time when the more serious side of life could wait. But, today, attending a university is extremely stressful for many students, starting on the day of the first lecture or, for some, even earlier.
A Case in Point
About 500,000 new students will be crowding into German lecture halls this year. This is roughly equal to the total number of students attending West German universities four decades ago, and this despite the rejection of many would-be students who applied this year. Some submitted 20-30 applications. Students sometimes have to directly apply to study within a particular subject area and, in many of them, it is left up to each university to decide who it accepts. Some applicants on waiting lists still don't know whether they'll get a place.
Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University (LMU) is a case in point for what this onslaught means to universities. With about 49,000 students, it is Germany's second largest university, behind the University of Hagen, the country's only state-run distance-teaching university. For admission-restricted majors alone, LMU received about 31,000 applications for the winter semester, as well as more applications for other majors and the school's master's degree programs. In total, LMU received twice as many applications as it did last year.
Even for those applicants who were accepted at LMU, conditions there will be far from ideal. LMU is not a poorly rated university. On the contrary, it is located in a particularly picturesque location and has earned top marks in the federal government's Excellence Initiative competition, which channels additional funding to high-performing universities. It was also named Germany's top university only a few days ago, in addition to holding the 45th spot on the Times Higher Education World University Ranking.
But even at a university as well-funded and celebrated as LMU, students are often left to fend for themselves.