Germany's top higher education advisory body is developing a higher education system that would replace the country's traditional diplom four-year-plus degree with international-style bachelors and masters.
The Wissenschaftsrat (science council) also plans to alter the content of degrees to tailor them more directly to careers.
"Not everyone who begins a degree nowadays wants to become a researcher," said Winfried Schulze, chairman of the Wissenschaftsrat.
Universities can no longer offer the same level of higher education to 50 per cent of school leavers in a system that was developed to accommodate the top 5 per cent, said Professor Schulze.
The new system would give students the chance to sit for a bachelor degree after six semesters. The best students could then continue on a masters programme with a stronger emphasis on research. The council is also discussing the possibility of charging fees for the masters programmes.
The traditional diplom could eventually be phased out, said Professor Schulze. The shorter bachelor degrees would make the German system more internationally compatible and could reduce Germany's high drop-out rate.
Too many people with poor educational backgrounds are getting lost in the system, the council says.
The model is to be presented later this year by an expert group which believes it would take two to three years to be phased in. The group envisages a start could be made in chemistry and technical sciences.
The council also plans to put more emphasis on cooperation between research institutes and would blur the barriers between research subjects.
The Wissenschaftsrat has already made a number of attempts in recent years to modernise German higher education and research, but has met with resistance from universities and education ministries.
Professor Schulze said they are more optimistic this time since many universities are already experimenting with bachelor and masters degree courses.
But Bavarian education minister Hans Zehetmair of the Christian Social Union opposed the idea of fully replacing the diplom. Bachelor degrees could play a role in helping Germany become more international, but it would be a "giant step backwards" to establish it as the main first degree in Germany, he said.