Philologus Ad Nauseam: Germany's Aged Students

Life in Germany can be difficult for the overworked or the unemployed. But for students, it's a playground of cheap beer, low rent and great nightlife. No wonder most German students don't graduate until they reach their late 20s.  Some dawdle at university right into their 30s.

Walk onto a German university campus and you might wonder, "Where the hell are all the students?" Sure, you'll see plenty of people carrying book bags and scuttling from the cafeteria vaguely in the direction of the library. But surely those aged looking creatures aren't students?

Oh, but they are. One of the first things you will notice if you stumble across a German institution of higher learning is how the age profile differs from that of universities elsewhere on the planet. Whereas most of the world's students are still relatively fresh faced and innocent looking despite their likely recent initiation into the ways of debauchery, German students are a wee bit long in the tooth. Some of them are well into their 30s. With little institutional or financial pressure to finish their studies and a cold and unfriendly job market, many are loath to leave the safe harbor of studentdom. It's little wonder then that Germany is home to the modern equivalent of the 19th century dandy -- the eternal student.

The average age of students in their very first semester is already a relatively ancient 23, partly due the fact that many students take a few years just to complete the first semester and also because of constant course and university changes. Many youth are also required to participate in mandatory military or civil service before they can begin their studies. Once settled in, things tend to ooze slowly forward and many eternal students don’t actual spend that much time at university. After finding a place to live and getting to know everyone in their 7-person student apartment or 50-person dormitory, the eternal student will then get a nice cushy part-time job. Despite the 5 million unemployed in Germany, this is easier than you might think. Employers don’t have to fork out the same for social insurance costs or pensions when they hire students. In fact many job ads will say "only students need apply". Then there are all those other aspects of student life, be it nightclubbing, love affairs, grill parties or three-month long trips through Eastern Europe in a VW bus, not to mention all those anti-war, anti-fascist and anti-globalization demos.

If the eternal student does ever actually darken the door of a classroom, things can be time consuming. Apart from dealing with the chronic overcrowding and aloof professors, timetables can be a headache -- with no set curriculum in most subjects it is up to the poor students to organize their own. Azerbaijani Post-Modern Literature might clash this year with Flight Patterns of the Spotted Owl, so it'll have to be one now and one some time in the far, far distant future.

Even when the core courses are finally completed there is that student internship at a film festival, museum or political party, and some people take a year or three just to write their thesis, often taking long breaks to chill out on a beach in Thailand or the Canary Islands. And why rush? There are countless perks to being an eternal student -- cheaper health insurance, lower taxes, subsidized entry to everything from museums to swimming pools and, of course, heavily subsidized public transportation. In Berlin, a transit pass is included in the nominal semester tuition fee of €150. In a country of hardship and worry, the life of the eternal student is blessed.

But things have been getting a little harder for the German student population of late. Cutbacks in all walks of life have also hit the ivory tower. Faced with too many students and too little resources, some of Germany's states have started to impose fees on the so-called "long-term students," defined as those still knocking about the university after 15 semesters (or seven and half years). They can now be asked to cough up €500 a semester, not exactly a king's ransom but perhaps an added incentive to hit the books. These measures seem to be having an affect. The average age of the German student on completing their studies has started to drop, from 30 in 2002 to 28 in 2005. With a court ruling in 2004 having effectively cleared the way for the introduction of student fees throughout the system, it is very likely that the eternal student could become as rare as a spotted owl.

As for today's eternal students, many are left a bit dazed and confused when the university system finally spews them out just about the time they hit 30. Surely some employer out there is looking for someone with a decade's experience of student life and a joint degree in metaphysics and ancient Greek pottery. If not, there is always the fate of countless other ex-students: which is a bit like being a student but without all those annoying lectures. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life: living on the dole.

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