Germany's snobs left standing

February 10, 1995

Gerard Gilbert finds Germany's Fachhochshulen fighting for status. In Germany's higher education sector, the Fachhochschulen have always had to play the role of poor cousins to the universities proper: their funding by the state is decidedly meagre, professorial staff have double the weekly lecturing commitment over a longer semester period, graduates are discriminated against - officially and unofficially - in access to certain jobs and to postgraduate study, and their degree programmes are considered by many (including those who should know better, such as teachers and career advisers) to be of a "lower" standard.

Much of this will seem depressingly familiar to those in Britain who struggled against the increasingly artificial "binary line" between universities and polytechnics before it was abandoned in 1993. True, the role and function of Germany's Fachhochschulen and universities are more clearly defined and differentiated than was the case in Britain: the Fachhochschulen do not offer degrees at all in many fields such as art, literature, history; they do not normally offer postgraduate courses (the universities' stranglehold on postgraduate research is just starting to loosen). Often they concentrate on only two, or even one, specific areas of study (for example engineering, business administration, technology) and their remit is to provide clearly practice-oriented degree courses of no more than four years' duration.

A new survey may go some way to rectifying the largely distorted public image of the Fachhochschulen ("Schmalspur-Unis", literally "narrow gauge universities, is a favourite sneer) at least in specific areas of study. In its January issue, Manager Magazin reveals the results of a survey in which more than 1,400 top managers and personnel officers evaluated the 169 tertiary sector schools of economics and business administration in Germany (included were six in Austria and nine in Switzerland).

Criteria for their assessment included standards of research, level of co-operation with industry, styles and standards of teaching, relevance of lectures to commercial and industrial practice, and the sheer quality and ability of graduates entering professional life.

Surprise, surprise: six of the first 20 rankings, including the very top position, are given to Fachhochschulen, with several prestigious universities appearing way down the list as also-rans. Also in the top 20 are three of Germany's only four private universities, and three Swiss and Austrian institutions. In some cities where there are both Fachhochschulen and universities, the Fachhochschulen are given the higher ranking.

The overall number one institution is the Fachhochschule Reutlingen, a relatively small institution with just over 3,000 students, long in the academic shadow of nearby Tubingen University. Five of its 11 departments (Fachbereiche) offer programmes exclusively in business and management studies. Three of these departments have excelled in internationalising their programmes, an additional factor to which the managers attach great significance.

The International Business School has a network of more than 20 partner universities in ten foreign countries, including five in Britain (Swansea, Heriot Watt, Exeter, Portsmouth, and Wolverhampton), three in Canada, and two in Russia ensuring a continuous and closely supervised exchange of students and staff, and it offers an integrated joint degree with the University of Savoie.

Two foreign languages are compulsory for all students, with three others available as options, and all lectures are geared to foreign trade/business. Add to this at least one compulsory half-year internship abroad, and the net technical foreign experience of graduates so vital for Germany's exporting industry becomes clear: in any one year, nearly 200 of this department's 500 students (more than 60 per cent of whom have completed a two to three-year industrial/commercial trainee programme before starting their degree) are studying and/or are in employment broad.

The export academy and the business school together have had between 12 and 15 applications for each place (figures that many university departments can only dream of), or that, relative to its size, Reutlingen was Germany's top institution in higher education in 1992/93 measured by student numbers exchanged under the European Union's Erasmus programme.

The survey begs the question of how valid it is to compare the Fachhochschulen and the universities: one university pro-dean has protested that you cannot compare apples and pears, others are muttering "foul" and "shoot the ref".

If one sets as the desirable norm only those characteristics that apply to traditional universities, then one can always prove that Fachhochschulen are "inferior" - and precisely that has been the tactic in the past. Bring in other characteristics (primacy of practice, industrial/professional background of lecturers, compulsory industrial places, pronounced internationality, low drop-out rates, and so on) and a different picture emerges.

And, after all, the real validity of the exercise lies in the fact that the vast majority of students graduating from university schools of economics and business will be competing for jobs head on with the Fachhochschule graduates. Industry has now clearly shown what sort of graduate it is looking for.

All surveys of this nature contain surprises, quirks, and even injustices (for example does the University of Frankfurt not deserve better than its 98th place or the University of Cologne its 41st). Nonetheless the bunching of Fachhochschulen in the very top bracket cannot be fortuitous, and should lead to some serious re-thinking of financial and academic priorities in universities as well as regional ministries of education. It is unlikely, however, there will be any serious discussion of granting the Fachhochschulen university status in the foreseeable future. Their current status is too firmly established in law - the Fachhochschulgesetze in each of the federal states - and the university lobby is far too strong. As in Britain, which is no stranger to the pooh-poohing of rival tertiary sector institutions, changes in attitudes take place only so quickly.

Gerard Gilbertson is professor of business studies at the Fachhochschule fur Technik und Wirtschaft, Reutlingen, Germany.

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