The binary system of higher education in Germany may be breaking down as non-university institutions known as Fachhochschulen seem "on the brink of conquering a major bastion of the universities: doctorates".
An academic has warned that the loss of this crucial remaining monopoly may represent a threat to universities' "organisational identity at a time when it is also being challenged by other higher education reforms".
Michael Vogel, professor of business administration and tourism at the Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences and a doctoral student at the Institute of Education, University of London, makes the argument in a paper presented to the Society for Research into Higher Education conference this week at the Celtic Manor resort near Newport, South Wales.
The term Fachhochschul is usually translated into English as "university of applied sciences", but crucially such institutions do not have the right to call themselves universitaeten in Germany.
Professor Vogel describes in his paper, Academic drift and discursive boundaries in the German higher education system, what he calls the Fachhochschulen's "academic drift".
Most of these institutions were set up from 1969 to 1971 with the aim of widening access and offering higher education in more applied and vocational areas.
The 220 Fachhochschulen have been responsible for most of the growth in the sector, although they account for only 30 per cent of student numbers - about 600,000.
Yet general trends, much enhanced by the Bologna Process, have slowly broken down the barriers that distinguish them from universities, the paper argues.
The Fachhochschulen have been granted the same "freedom of teaching and research" as universities. They are required to carry out applied research and even allowed to supervise doctorates in collaboration with universities.
And when bachelors and masters degrees were introduced in both types of institution for the first time in 2000, a further crucial barrier fell.
"The Bologna Process has made the institutions more and more similar," Professor Vogel said. "Before they offered different degrees. Now the Fachhochschulen offer the same qualifications. They have always been in competition with universities, but now they can offer the same products."
This is sometimes but by no means always in different disciplines.
Business administration, social work, design and engineering are now shared territory, although physics and medicine, for example, remain university monopolies.
All this leaves doctorate-awarding powers as a crucial battleground.
Although Professor Vogel works in a Fachhochschul and would like to see the introduction of professional doctorates in Germany, and is to that extent an interested party, he is critical of the strident rhetoric heard on both sides of the debate.
"The conflicts have become very shrill, even as the two types of institution become more and more similar," he said.
Auf wiedersehen, idealism?
Professor Vogel said that universities "talk about saying goodbye to ideals, opening the door to materialism and exploitation by economic interests".
They claim that "with 600 years of experience in research and teaching" since the University of Heidelberg was founded in 1385, they are the "sole guarantors of research-based higher education".
Yet he argued that the real concerns of academics based in Germany's universities amount to fears of "being deprofessionalised and incapacitated by managerialist and market-based reforms".
Furthermore, there remains "a strong Humboldtian strand in the genetic code of German universities", he added.
This is a reference to the ideals of the research university embodied in the celebrated University of Berlin (now the Humboldt University of Berlin), founded by the Prussian educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810. According to his vision, scholars are expected to pursue disinterested rather than vocational research in "solitude and freedom".
Professor Vogel said that such ideals have made it difficult for German universities to adapt to more economically driven models, as they are caught between Fachhochschulen on one side and the trend for more research funding to go to places such as the Max Planck institutes - which operate independently of the universities - on the other.
In the meantime, he said, the Fachhochschulen were also making the case for doctorate-awarding powers in terms of their "institutional biographies, experiences, competences and needs".
Their official line goes something like this: "We have demonstrated our ability to conduct quality research, yet we lose our best graduates to universities as we cannot offer them doctorates," he said.
Off the record, academics in the country tend to complain that they are being "depersonalised and exploited" by excessive teaching loads.
The fight about the real and "discursive barriers" between universities and Fachhochschulen remains fierce. But as the debate is conducted largely in terms of institutional identity and pride, Professor Vogel said, wider interests - of doctoral students, their potential employers and society at large - have gone almost unmentioned.
"A major shift in the structure of education is taking place through institutions pursuing their own interests rather than the public good," he concluded.