Germany’s Bologna Process: ‘not as bad as everybody thinks’

Analysis finds new bachelor’s graduates do well in labour market, particularly those from more practically focused universities

May 11, 2017
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Fears that the introduction of shorter degrees in Germany would leave graduates unprepared for employment appear to be unfounded, according to a new analysis.

Under the Bologna Process, which was designed to move degrees across continental Europe into line with courses in the UK and the US, traditional four- to six-year programmes were split into bachelor’s and master’s degrees to allow students to graduate and start working at a younger age.

Despite fears that graduates with “only” three years of higher education would struggle in the job market, new German bachelor’s graduates appear to have slotted well into the workforce, earning more than their vocationally trained counterparts.

Martin Neugebauer, co-author of “Does a Bachelor’s Degree Pay Off? Labor Market Outcomes of Academic versus Vocational Education after Bologna” and an assistant professor in higher education research at the Free University of Berlin, said: “What we found is basically that it’s not as bad as everybody thinks.”

Graduates of shorter degrees in Germany earn slightly more than the country’s master craftsmen, who must complete a rigorous and longer vocational training programme, Professor Neugebauer found. Bachelor’s graduates were more likely to be unemployed or to be employed on fixed-term contracts, but this had been a problem for graduates even before the Bologna reforms, he said.

The new system is still criticised in the media, and a handful of universities have reintroduced the lengthy engineering diploma, which Professor Neugebauer described as being “something of a German trademark”.

Qualification reform is even a minor political issue: the right-wing party Alternative for Germany has declared in its manifesto that the Bologna Process has “failed” because employers are unhappy with the quality of bachelor’s graduates, and it has promised to bring back the traditional diplom and magister qualifications.

However, despite the Bologna Process, most German students continue to study for as long as they ever did: only a third start working when they have completed a bachelor’s degree, and the majority continue on to earn a master’s (which still results in a comfortable earnings premium, the analysis shows).

“So we’re still seeing the educational expansion, it’s just opening up an additional door to let people leave the system with a degree,” Professor Neugebauer said.

The study also found that bachelor’s graduates from Germany’s practically inclined universities of applied sciences did better in the workplace than those from more academic, research-oriented institutions, earning about 5 per cent more and having a lower risk of unemployment or being on a fixed-term contract.

This is the reverse of the situation in the UK, where graduates of former polytechnics earn less than those from research-intensive universities. Germany has less of a university hierarchy than many other countries, with no real equivalent of the US’ Ivy League, the UK’s universities of Oxford and Cambridge or France’s grandes écoles.

Germany’s universities of applied sciences “combine the advantages of both vocational and academic training”, said Professor Neugebauer.

“Their students are trained at an academic level, but they are very much connected to employers; their shares of practical work are much higher – you have to work with a company for an entire semester – [and] the professors usually have working experience outside the academic world,” he explained.

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