German universities fear losing monopoly over doctorates

University leaders claim shift could water down standards, but applied sciences institutes think they are simply defending historic privileges

April 3, 2019
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German higher education is bitterly divided over plans to strip universities of their monopoly over doctoral degrees and allow applied sciences institutes to award PhDs independently.

University leaders have warned that the changes could cause an “earthquake” that will disrupt the country’s finely balanced, specialised higher education system. But their critics accuse them of trying to preserve unjustified privileges.

Currently, only universities can award doctoral degrees in Germany. This has led to frustration among the country’s universities of applied sciences, which rely on the cooperation of full universities to train doctoral students.

The issue has come to a head with a proposed law in North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s most populous state, which wants to create a centralised doctoral college that could award its own qualifications without needing a university.

“It’s a kind of earthquake in the whole German scientific system,” warned Lambert Koch, rector of the University of Wuppertal.

Universities have attacked the plans, questioning whether the universities of applied sciences have the quality of research needed to deliver doctorates. They fear that the change could dent their importance and shrink their budgets, said Professor Koch, despite federal government attempts to improve their reputation through the country’s multibillion-euro excellence strategy.

The plans could also divert universities of applied sciences from their mission to provide practically focused education because not all students “need this high standard of education and a very theoretical background”, Professor Koch said. If the law passes, “there would be, in the long run, a convergence of the different types of university”, he warned.

The doctorate debate has a particular intensity in Germany, where they are more common than in the rest of Europe and are seen as more of a prerequisite for promotion in politics and business. Germany had close to 200,000 doctoral students in 2016, outnumbering those in the UK by more than 80,000 and about triple the total for France.

Monika Gross, president of the Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin, said that universities were simply defending their current privileges. It was ironic that technical universities were now lobbying to prevent universities of applied sciences receiving doctoral powers, she said, because in the late 19th century they had fought and won the same battle in the face of resistance from more established universities.

Giving doctoral powers to universities of applied sciences should improve social justice, she argued. Many of their students come from families where no one has been to university before, Professor Gross said – at Beuth the figure is 60 per cent. “Give them a chance,” she said.

Over the past 15 years, universities and universities of applied sciences have invented what are called “cooperative doctorates”, explained Martin Steinberg, director of North Rhine-Westphalia’s Postgraduate Institute, which was set up to help professors from both types of institution supervise doctoral degrees.

Currently, research is undertaken at the university of applied sciences and is supervised primarily by one of its professors, he said, but ultimately it has to be a university that awards the doctorate.

Despite the efforts of his institute, he said, university professors were still often reluctant to cooperate. This is why the state wants the Postgraduate Institute to be able to award the degrees independently, he explained.

This proposed doctoral college is not completely unprecedented – a similar body already exists in Hesse, a much smaller German state. But strict quality rules mean that very few universities of applied sciences in Hesse had ended up awarding doctorates, said Professor Koch.

Yet if North Rhine-Westphalia introduces something similar, universities worry that it could trigger a domino effect across Germany. “The others are all looking at what happens here,” he said.


Print headline: German universities fear doctoral dilution

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Reader's comments (1)

"Giving doctoral powers to universities of applied sciences should improve social justice, she argued. Many of their students come from families where no one has been to university before, Professor Gross said – at Beuth the figure is 60 per cent. “Give them a chance,” she said." That's nonsense. They have every chance they need by going to a full university instead to one of applied sciences. I come from a family where nobody before me had attended the university or even had the necessary qualification (Abitur) to do so. And I went to a full university and made my way through. And that was almost two decades ago when there were not nearly as many support services for students in place as there are today. The thing is that you either have to decide whether you want to receive an application oriented education or a research oriented application. Now, if a student realizes during his or her students that they are more interested in research instead of application or vice versa I am all for making the transfer from one type of university to the other as easy as possible, be it as an undergraduate or a graduate student, etc. But a university of applied sciences should not award a research degree. The PhD should qualify you for an academic career - in research - and we already have more than enough PhDs who cannot get the academic job they dream of simply because there are not enough of those jobs. And, yes, there needs to be a change in the perception culture: a financial advisor is not smart than his/her colleague simply because she/he holds a PhD degree.