Reforming post-Bologna undergraduate studies in Germany

Mensa Uni Koeln

Since the Bologna agreement of 1999, some 47 European states have committed to simplying their degrees around a common Bachelor/Master/Doctor structure and moving to a common credit framework. German universities found the implementation process pretty demanding, but they managed it. Now, though, the new structure itself is about to be reformed.

Higher education reform in Germany is always a lengthy process, not least because education – and therefore university policy – is devolved to the sixteen Länder. National initiatives therefore involve negotiation and consensus between the sixteen ministers and the university rectors. This procedure, though lengthy, is well-established, and seems to work well. The two groups issued a common declaration on post-Bologna reforms last week.

The main problem seems to be that universities effectively made as few changes as possible in order to conform with the Bologna requirements. Overall, the levelof compliance seems high. Most German universities moved in 2009/10 to a new Bachelor/Masters degree structure. However, some specialist arts institutions have held back, there are question marks over regulated subjects such as medicine and law, and across the sector there are still some Diplom students grimly hanging on from before the reforms, who therefore have to be catered for.

Yet apparent compliance has tended to conceal a reality of rigidly prescribed degree structures, with limited possibilities of flexibility; and a pattern of student assessment that lacks transparency and detail, and is widely seen as unfair.The possibilities of part-time study (known usually as ‘career-accompanying learning’) and mobility weakest of all in the estalished public universities and – perhaps predictably – highest in the many private universities that now exist across Germany.

Among the main aims of the Bologna reforms were to enable student mobility and promote lifelong learning. The first has been achieved to some extent, and the decision is now to develop further the transparency and scope of recognition of credit gained abroad. The second requires more flexible use of teaching and administrative staff, particularly in view of ‘an increasingly heterogeneous student population’, as well as greater use of recognition of prior and international learning.These changes are, the document says, likely to involve additional costs.

In Germany, there was also a hope that the Bologna structure would improve retention. I’ve not been able to find recent figures, but what I hear from colleagues is continuing concern that retention and completion rates are still low by western European standards. At the same time, friends and colleagues expressed a certain reform-weariness over the latest package.

Implementation of the post-Bologna reforms will now fall to the Länder and individual institutions. A failure to change is likely to strengthen further the private higher education sector, which already makes part-time study one of its main selling points. But it is interesting that the education ministers and rectors across Germany are agreed on the importance of part-time learning, at a time when the opposite appears true across the UK.



2 thoughts on “Reforming post-Bologna undergraduate studies in Germany

  1. I sometimes think that the low retention rates are due to university education being free: Where I work (Uni Trier, Germany), there are often (though a minority) students who ‘try out’ studying, especially subjects with low/no entry requirements, maybe because they’re not sure what they want to do after school, or because they’re waiting to be accepted onto a more prestigious degree programme, and then ‘drop out’ once they’ve found their way into something else. Not having to pay tuition fees seems to mean that they start studying with us without a strong sense of commitment or investment in the degree.

    I also see another point that you mentioned – having made minimal changes in swapping over to the BA/MA system. In our Faculty, a lot of courses were simply re-named, and the modules plugged into a more rigid programme of study (which was more flexible in the old Magister and Diplom programmes). While this does make it easier for students to spend time studying abroad and get the modules they complete there accredited when they return, I feel that the breadth of the degrees has been limited somewhat by reducing the number of (and time for) optional modules, which were previously often used for inter-disciplinary work.

    Still, the re-accreditation process has emphasised the need to promote transferable skills and job-relevant training/work-placements, etc, so maybe we are moving in the right direction…

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