Photo Gallery: Weathering Academic Change in Germany

Foto: dapd

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.

Forced to Take What's Left

Anja, 25, has been going to school for years. She's done well and is on the verge of graduating. During course registration, she would awake at 5 a.m. and head to the university, bringing along a sleeping bag, sandwiches, a thermos and her transcripts. But she was still worried that it wouldn't be enough -- because other students had gotten up even earlier.

The window at which teacher trainees register for seminars in religion and German opened at 8 a.m. But, by the time Anja reached the front of the line, most of the lists were full. Since all the courses were overbooked, she never managed to get into the seminars she wanted to attend. As a result, students like her have been forced to take whatever still has openings just to get the credits they need.

LMU recently changed its course registration system so that students can register online. But even though she no longer has to camp out in front of the registration office, Anja now has to get up even earlier, at 4 a.m. She's sitting in front of her laptop 10 minutes later because the LMU server is activated at 4:15. But it quickly becomes so overloaded that it crashes by 4:20. Anja doesn't know what to do anymore. "When I wait in line," she says, "at least I know I'll get into some course. Now, I can't even access the university's website."

Off-Campus Challenges

Packed lecture halls, old books, full seminars and crumbling buildings -- the complaints are not new, and certainly not limited to Munich. Since Germany's elite schools turned into so-called mass universities, deficiencies have become standard fare. Alumni tend to romanticize the many shortcomings of university life, downplaying the problems they faced and reinterpreting them as challenges. For them, part of the value of a university degree consists in having attained it despite the hardships.

Everyone somehow got used to the challenges of student life, but the current onslaught of new students goes beyond all previous experience and expectations -- especially after the conference of German education ministers had predicted smaller numbers of new students for this year. But it hasn't just become more difficult to get a seat in a lecture hall. In the large university cities, in particular, life outside the classroom sometimes poses even greater challenges.

On a balmy summer evening in Frankfurt, Manfred Schubert-Zsilavecz, the 50-year-old vice president of Goethe University, is hosting a barbecue in a cozy urban courtyard. He is celebrating his departure after spending four weeks living in a brand-new student dormitory. He is holding a glass of red wine and surrounded by young students talking about their everyday lives. "That's bad," he says repeatedly. "Really bad."

For the last three years Schubert-Zsilavecz, has spent a few weeks each year living in a student dormitory. "It gives you a really good sense of the real-life problems students face," he says. Schubert-Zsilavecz is the person on the university's board of directors in charge of monitoring the quality of teaching. But the complaints he hears during his dormitory stays often revolve around the high cost of rent.

If conditions everywhere were the way they are in the dormitory where Schubert-Zsilavecz spent a few weeks this summer, there would be little reason for concern. The professor stayed in Apartment 001 in the brand-new Wiesenhüttenplatz dormitory. It was a 19-square-meter (204-square-foot) room with a space-saving bunk bed over a kitchen unit and a tiny bathroom, complete with direct access to a terrace -- all for €340 ($466) a month. "I think this is a very comfortable place to live and work," he says.

The students attending his party agree. "A complete stroke of luck," says Lisa, a 21-year-old education major. She spent much of her first two semesters commuting to Frankfurt from her parents' house on the edge of the Odenwald region, a one-and-a-half-hour drive from the city. "It gets pretty expensive," she says. A large real estate brokerage recently reported that monthly rents for apartments in Frankfurt are often upwards of €12 per square meter and about €14.50 in the popular Westend district, where the university is located.

Those who can't afford the high rents have to decide whether to commute or get a job. But, says Schubert-Zsilavecz, "we can't expect our students to do well if they're not able to fully concentrate on their studies."

Added Time Pressure

These days, although being able to concentrate on academics is more important than ever, it's an unattainable goal for most students. They have to hurry if they hope to succeed.

In 1999, as part of the so-called Bologna Process, 29 European countries agreed to standardize the academic degrees their universities award. In Germany, this has meant that, for most fields of study, the traditional Magister and Diplom degrees are being gradually phased out in favor of bachelor's and master's degrees.

The students hoping to earn a bachelor's degree in the new system have to get used to the idea that the first examination takes place shortly after they've arrived at the university and that there is now a time limit on how long they can put off taking their final examinations. And the older students hoping to graduate with the traditional degrees are now forced to expedite things because their programs are being phased out.

The End of the 'Eternal Student' Days

There are still some students on university campuses who reminisce about the old days. One of those so-called "eternal students" can be found at Christian Albrecht University in the northern city of Kiel. He registered as a student in medicine when Konrad Adenauer was still chancellor and the Berlin Wall hadn't even been planned yet. Even though he is in his 108th semester, the university does not have the power to throw him out. As one university spokesman explains, the rules for majors that require students to take a state examination, such as medicine, do not contain provisions for ejecting long-term students.

Today, most students can only dream of living the life of the eternal student. Long-term students are not just senior citizens with more than 100 semesters under their belts. Instead, they are people like Jan Weber, a slim, athletic 28-year-old who earned his first university credits while still in high school. His physics teacher had enrolled him at the university, and Weber graduated from high school with top grades in his major subjects. By the time others in his age group were beginning their first semester, he was already earning credits and performing well in advanced seminars.

With sparkling eyes, Weber says that theoretical physics is just "his thing." But while many of his former fellow students have gone on to well-paying jobs, he is in his 16th semester and is about to be forced to cease his studies because he failed to complete an internship in the early phases. The university argues that the internship is required for the oral intermediate examination. Likewise, Weber's legal right to complete this examination apparently expired in the 2010/2011 winter semester, when his course of study adopted the new degree system.

Weber could switch to the new system, but then a number of his credits would not be recognized. He says that he has only one semester to go before he can take the intermediate examination, but the university has rejected his request to be treated as a hardship case.

Over the years, Weber has not been taking it easy. With the exception of one other internship, he has earned all the required credits in his main course of study. What is missing, he says, are "the least complex things." But why didn't he take care of them when he was supposed to?

With a touch of self-criticism, Weber admits that his is unfortunately "not as well-organized as others." Most of all, he spent a lot of time involved in political and social causes. He worked for the German Students' Committee for three years -- one of them, ironically, as an educational adviser. He organized demonstrations and strikes to abolish tuition; he was elected spokesman of the Young Socialists in Cologne's Südstadt district; he became a committee member in the local center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) organization; and he also tutored members of Cologne's premier youth soccer team. "In the past, people like me would have been completely normal at the university," Weber says. "But today we're unwanted."


The University of Cologne has forcibly exmatriculated a total of 32 students in courses of study that have now been eliminated. There are now special provisions for these students, says a university spokesman, who refers to their plight as a "minority issue." He is right, of course, given that it affects only 32 out of about 38,000 students. But the way this minority is being treated says a lot about how the majority of students are expected to go about their studies -- and certainly not with too many twists and turns.

That's exactly what happened to Sandra. The 28-year-old was forcibly exmatriculated during her 13th semester. Transferring to another university would have set her back. When she moved from the central German city of Marburg to Cologne, Sandra says she had to retake all of the courses she had already completed in her minor, history, because the University of Cologne had refused to recognize her credits. She also says she suffered from exam anxiety and had to work at an insurance company to make ends meet.

When she was thrown out, she says she had only been missing credits in Latin and had not passed an intermediate examination in her minor, history, which she was not allowed to take again without the Latin credits. She sought counseling for her exam anxiety and did relaxation exercises before the important Latin examination, but to no avail. "I'm sure I would have made it if I hadn't been under pressure because of the threat of being exmatriculated."

Imperfect Reforms

Norbert Finzsch, a professor of Anglo-American history at the University Cologne, signed a letter of protest over the forced exmatriculations. As prorector, he was one of the people behind the Bologna Process reforms, but he isn't happy with the results. The reform should have included the option of attending school part-time, Finzsch says, adding that: "We fail to recognize the reality of the lives of students who often have to work half days."

Finzsch's sympathy for students who the university feels are taking too much time to complete their degrees stems from his own experience. The university where he teaches today once threw him out when he was a student there in 1976, after he had forgotten to re-register. In the midst of preparing for examinations, he suddenly found himself stripped of his library privileges, but he still managed to finagle his way into taking the exams. "I know what it means for people to simply be tossed out," he says now.

The Hidden Costs of Change

But how many deviations should a system allow, and how many mistakes should it forgive? How many semesters of study should a country be required to allow its students to attend? There are many good reasons to set limits on students' freedoms, at least as long as the higher education system is primarily funded with taxpayer money. But not everyone is aware of the fact that many students pay a price for being hurried along: stress.

"Since the beginning of the new millennium, new performance requirements for students have become increasingly characteristic," concludes the 11th Student Survey, the largest review of the conditions and views of German students. "For this reason," the survey continues, "the work culture, especially at universities, seems one-sidedly geared toward performance."

The study is completed regularly on behalf of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The most recent results were published in 2010. "Because of the more intensive work demands being required of them, a little more than half of students at universities feel overwhelmed," the study found, though it notes that this figure is slightly lower at universities of applied sciences. It also notes that "performance-related problems have significantly increased."

The study also found that 41 percent of university students report feeling "great pressure about upcoming examinations, the amount of material to be covered and the time pressure of exams." In this case, the situation is similar at universities of applied sciences.

Growing Anger, Sadness and Aggression

All these figures and statistics can naturally be interpreted in a number of ways. Is it such a bad thing, for example, that students sometimes feel stressed? Of course, 41 percent is a high number. But, if you look at the other side of the coin, doesn't this also mean that the majority of students are doing relatively well?

Vivian Wendt directs a telephone hotline for counseling troubled students in Hamburg. The 50-year-old psychologist can offers insights into the real-life faces and stories these numbers represent.

Wendt's voice is warm, soft and somehow soothing. She listens carefully to the questions people calling in to the hotline ask. She pauses for several seconds before answering, and when she speaks, she does so slowly, communicating in the same way she expects her hotline staff members to. "We should be sensitive and sympathetic," Wendt explains, "never judging or patronizing."

The crisis line has been operated by the Protestant Student Association for 35 years. The phone lines are open every day from 8 p.m. till midnight. Since 1999, students in crisis have also been able to communicate with counselors via e-mail. The 30 people working there are all students who have completed two semesters of counseling training. They receive about 170 calls a month, many from people outside of Hamburg.

In recent years, Wendt says, more and more students have felt the need to vent their frustrations. "They're under a lot of pressure," she says. "We sense high levels of anger, sadness and aggression coming our way."

The counselors have clearly recognized the consequences of the Bologna Process in their work. Many students are having trouble coping with the new and faster pace of academic life. Wendt refers to it as "academic bulimia," a term she heard a student use -- and one she feels hits the nail on the head. "Some students complain about having to learn a lot of material quickly and then regurgitate it soon thereafter during exams," she says. "This no longer has anything to do with education. Students aren't being taught how to think anymore."

Wendt believes it is necessary to expand the six-semester bachelor's degree program to eight semesters, and she also recommends more general education in the first years of study, more freedom of choice for young students and encouraging more of them to go to school part-time. "The rules of economy -- that is, achieving a lot in a short span of time -- should no longer be allowed to shape university life," Wendt says. "It should be possible for a student's school career to be fragmented at times."

Internal Pressure

But even students hardly seem to allow themselves such latitude anymore. In addition to the external pressures of applications, examinations and paying the rent, there is also internal pressure. Students see themselves as part of a competition -- and, in some cases, a global one. As a result, even students with excellent prospects find it hard to relax.

Janies Potthoff is a 30-year-old student. When asked the last time he took a weekend off, he raises his eyebrows and pushes out his lower lip, saying: "There's no such thing as relaxation here." Potthoff is studying business at the private Leipzig Graduate School of Management (HHL), where a degree course costs up to €30,000 ($41,100). He worked for a management consulting firm after earning a bachelor's degree in the northern city of Oldenburg. Although a lot was expected of him in the past, he says that studying at HHL is extreme, "like running a marathon at high speed."

Last year, 80 percent of the students at HHL received job offers while still in school. Many sign with major companies, such as Siemens, McKinsey and Goldman Sachs. And once they have their job offers, they could easily sit back and relax a little. But, instead, they work even harder at preparing for their future careers. "I want a good job, and I'm willing to make sacrifices for it," Potthoff says. School takes up about 80 hours of his week and more than 100 during exam time.

The students are driven, but not because of their strict parents or demanding professors. Instead, they put themselves under pressure, constantly comparing themselves with fellow students and fine-tuning their résumés. "You always have to have an eye to the job market," says Potthoff.

An Academic Arms Race

For Potthoff and his fellow students, there is no such thing as calling it a day, not to mention taking weekends or time for vacation off. They have two weeks off for Christmas and one for Easter. During summer vacation, they work as interns in companies or consulting firms.

The university also employs its own career adviser. Melanie Janke talks to the students about their goals, desires and concerns. "They are responsible, goal-oriented and ambitious, sometimes even too ambitious," she says. Some seem so perfect, she adds, that she sometimes asks herself: "What happened to your youth?"

According to Janke, some students join Greenpeace or sports clubs a few months before applying to the school. In the past, she says, people lived their lives and then tried to package their experiences into their résumés. But, today, it's the other way around. Students don't loaf around anymore or get involved in lengthy kitchen-table discussions with roommates. Instead, they struggle their way through business case studies. Janke calls it "tuning" a résumé, which starts while students are still in high school, with internships and violin lessons.

Companies are demanding better and better applicants, and they also offer them more. In the past, people who had gone to school abroad stood out. But since everyone does it these days, it's no longer considered something that makes one stand out. An academic arms race has begun, and students know that good grades are no longer enough to get them the jobs they want.

Learning Everything But How to Relax

The hallways at HHL are filled with conversations peppered with fragments of German and English. The German business newspaper Handelsblatt is on a table in the lobby. Students are kicking around a hacky sack in the courtyard, but they're not the young elites from the business school, who don't have time for such games. Instead, they're physical education students who live in the same complex.

Saskia Richter, 22, puts some wobbly penne pasta with tomato sauce onto her plate. She doesn't have much time for lunch. Her class schedule at HHL is jam-packed with projects, lectures and seminars. Richter says that it was already her goal to attend HHL when she was still in the 12th grade.

Richter took part in a business-plan simulation at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, completed an internship at BMW and was involved in a student-run management consulting firm and in a group called the Society for Capital Market-oriented Accounting. She also studied in Madrid for half a year -- not because she was particularly interested in Spain, but because employers expect job applicants to have spent some time abroad.

She is horrified by the idea of being unproductive. Richter's father is a management consultant, while her mother is a tax officer. Her parents are sometimes surprised by how ambitious she is. They don't say what generations of parents have said: Stick to it. Instead, they say: Child, you need to relax.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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