German palates slow to adapt to Bologna's quick-cook recipe

Ten years on, EU-wide menu of reforms continues to stir debate. Frances Mechan-Schmidt reports

September 13, 2012

When Germany introduced the Bologna Process to its universities almost exactly 10 years ago, the reforms offered the chance to curtail the nation's notoriously long degree courses and to end a system under which students typically graduated between the ages of 25 and .

Germany's universities switched from longer courses to internationally recognised BA and MA qualifications to ensure comparability with other European states in the standards and quality of higher education. The reforms promised students greater mobility and increased opportunities for study exchanges with the Bologna signatory member states, which now number 47.

Yet many German universities are still struggling with the transfer to the new system. Indeed, some implemented the changes only recently, since the process allowed a 10-year transition time after Germany became a signatory in August 2002.

And Horst Hippler, new president of Germany's University Rectors' Conference (HRK), is sceptical of the merits of the Bologna Process, fearing that it will damage the quality of the nation's degree courses.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the argument, German business - which welcomed Bologna's gift of younger graduates - is calling for courses to give students more "corporate awareness".

One of the first universities to make the shift to the new system under the Bologna Process was Bielefeld University, where Andrea Frank heads the Centre for Teaching and Learning in addition to the careers advisory service.

"The reform forced us to rethink our own approach to teaching and managing students," she concedes. "We had to address weaknesses that had existed for decades, in addition to implementing the changes themselves."

This included the supervision and mentoring of undergraduate students: before the Bologna reforms, lecture attendance, particularly in social sciences and the humanities, was famously patchy, a manifestation of a culture in which students organised their own learning. Suddenly, lecture halls were full as undergraduates crowded in from day one, anxious not to miss anything as they worked to the new, more stringent deadlines.

Are the glory days over?

"That's how we, and other universities, noticed we didn't have enough staff and lecture halls were overcrowded," Frank explains, adding that there is no point in "harking back to a glorified past where students studied at their leisure in accordance with their own inclinations, often not with satisfactory results".

She refers to a colleague correcting a pile of post-Bologna undergraduate coursework. "In the past, only the really capable students completed work on time. Now, they all have to get down to it."

In fact, some German undergraduates now complete their studies in even less than the statutory three years, according to statistics published by the German Science Council in 2009, in marked contrast to pre-reform days when diplom (comparable to BA) and magister (comparable to MA) students often extended their study time by two and three years respectively.

Yet are such turbocharged degrees necessarily a change for the better, even if the average German graduate will no longer leave university in their mid- to late-twenties?

Hippler is not so sure. The physics professor and president of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology was always a frank critic of the Bologna Process, even before he was appointed HRK president in May.

"I feel university studies are about more than finishing degrees as quickly as possible," he says.

"University is there to educate people in the broadest sense and promote soft skills needed in professional life such as communication, the ability to work in a team, flexibility and perseverance. I personally feel many study courses since the Bologna reform are just too rigidly structured and overloaded with content."

However, he concedes that "student dropout rates, especially in the humanities and social sciences, have substantially decreased, which is a very positive outcome of the reform process".

What about increased opportunities to study abroad? Hippler remains unconvinced of the effectiveness of this aspect of the reforms. "The European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System doesn't allow a one-to-one comparison of study courses; recognition is still very difficult," he explains.

Kevin Heidenreich, education specialist for the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), says: "German BA students often find that a university exchange would coincide with their final exams, so they are unable to pursue it."

Also, the problem of accreditation and credit transfer remains, Heidenreich argues, and students are understandably unwilling to prolong their studies if their time abroad does not count towards their final mark. In consequence, he says, they prefer not to go elsewhere during their degree course.

However, some institutions are already liaising successfully with partner universities abroad so that courses are integrated and students may continue studies back home without interruption.

"For example, the University of Passau offers an integrated university exchange as well as (an) internship as part of their BA degree in cultural industries," Heidenreich says. "And in the humanities faculty at the University of Hamburg, there is a wide range of integrated options in degree courses to prepare students for different professions in their future careers."

But Heidenreich believes there is room for improvement. "Germany still needs to move away from overly academically centred degree courses and prepare young people better for the future, whether they go into industry, conduct research or become academics themselves," he says.

According to Heidenreich, university courses should be put in a career context, an aspect he feels was lacking long before the Bologna Process. Like Hippler, he emphasises the need to equip young people with soft skills in addition to their academic qualifications.

"They need to be instilled with a sense of responsibility and an awareness of corporate needs," he says. "After all, that makes them employable."

The road to reform

And what does the government say, on the tenth anniversary of the implementation of the Bologna Process? Annette Schavan, federal minister for education and research, calls the reforms "a European success story", adding that degrees for German students are "more compact than ever before" and that the opportunities for studying abroad "have never been better".

Only 2 per cent of BA graduates are unemployed, according to government statistics, and 85 per cent of approximately 15,000 university programmes have made the successful transition to BA and MA degree courses from the old, pre-Bologna system.

So what remains to be done? According to Frank at Bielefeld University, the Bologna reforms cannot solve the sector's financial challenges or address the need for more qualified staff, but have unleashed a long-overdue debate on the need for structural academic reform at all university levels.

Hippler, on the other hand, is campaigning for more government support in the wake of the changes that universities are still undergoing as a result of the Bologna Process.

In his view, young people coping with the increased demands and expectations resulting from the streamlining of old German degrees into more tightly organised BA and MA programmes need comprehensive mentoring and support. He feels that the government should get involved and put more money and resources at universities' disposal, since the burden of transition - for academic staff and students alike - inevitably falls on the universities themselves.

As education is controlled by the Lander, or states, the federal government would normally not get involved in individual state policy. However, the German government has just approved a constitutional amendment which would enable universities throughout the country to benefit from federal funds.

Hippler remains cautiously optimistic: "Let's see what happens," he says.

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