Germany’s two-tier HE system is not all that it seems

Some commentators have urged the UK to replicate German universities of applied science. It’s not that simple, says Neil Shirtcliffe

July 5, 2018
A double-decker bus at the Brandenburg Gate
Source: iStock

It is often stated that Germany’s universities of applied science, known as Fachhochschulen, underpin its widely envied industrial success.

The question that is less commonly asked is: “Industrial success for whom?” As someone who moved from the UK to Germany in 2011 for a teaching position at a Fachhochschule, I would say that these institutions turn out high-performing but poorly paid workers with few career prospects. Students are equipped with the skills to work but not the competencies or confidence to be promoted.

This is very good for many companies – employees request fewer pay rises and are easier to manage – but it limits upward social mobility. Statistics bear this out. The number of academic overachievers from poor households is lower in Germany than it is in the UK, and entry to postgraduate degrees is very low among children of the less educated, who are more likely to end up in a Fachhochschule than a university.

So it might be wise for other countries to pause before rushing ahead with attempts to replicate the German system.

In England, Theresa May’s tertiary education review, which seeks to “deliver the advanced technical skills that [the UK] economy requires”, has raised suggestions that some form of the German model might be the answer. However, the German and English systems have major differences: in Germany, many more people study beyond the age of 18 – usually locally – and large numbers of graduate jobs are not particularly well paid. This is sustainable in Germany because no one pays tuition fees, but it would not easily translate to a system where annual fees exceed £9,000.

The investment of fewer resources per student also leads to a more brutal system than the UK’s. Students are expected to solve their own problems, which can feed inequality because those with more educated parents have the inbuilt advantage of knowing how to navigate the system. This is quite different from the vision of universities acting “in loco parentis” recently put forward by Sam Gyimah, England’s universities minister.

But the biggest difference between Germany and the UK is the widespread acceptance by the community of the two-tier higher education system. This is not something that English ministers could legislate into existence, and the long-standing British belief that technical education is second-class education lies behind the post-1992 conversion of the polytechnics – which Fachhochschulen resemble – into universities.

But the German sector’s great strength is also its greatest weakness: its popular acceptance means that institutions are seldom held to account. Even when their flaws are acknowledged, they are still held in great regard.

German universities are all broadly supposed to deliver the same level of teaching – with institutional hierarchies much less apparent than in the UK. The same is true of Fachhochschulen. So converting to this system would require a levelling of UK universities – old and new – that is unlikely to happen.

Then there is the issue of differentiation. Fachhochschulen and universities have peacefully co-existed for decades. However, both have recently broadened their offers, with the result that they are starting to overlap. Universities are under pressure to be more applied, while the Fachhochschulen, aware that jobs for life are no longer common, are becoming more academic.

Other doubts about the system linger, too. Since 1970, Germany has won far fewer Nobel prizes than the UK despite having a larger population and spending more on research. It seems logical that this could be a result of concentrating on applied research. And there is some evidence that the best international students choose not to come to Germany, in part because of the way its education system is built.

That system certainly has some advantages, but it is by no means clear that duplicating it would be necessary to build an ecosystem of small and medium-sized industries to rival Germany’s fabled Mittlestand.

Moreover, the English and German education systems have advantages and disadvantages that result from decades, if not centuries, of public and industrial policy. Any attempt to adopt the German system in England would result, at best, in the substitution of one set of flaws for another.

Neil Shirtcliffe is a professor of biomaterials science at Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Kleve, Germany.

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Print headline: German system is no cure-all

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