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.



An unusual approach to higher education: Civilian students in Germany’s military universities

Germany has two military universities, one in Hamburg and one in Munich. Like most other developed nationals, the armed forces are declining in size (if not necessarily in capacity), so there are fewer service personnel to be educated in the universities.

I was interested to read recently that the slack is being taken up by civilians.  It turns out that the military universities are pretty attractive to what we might call “young mature students”. Because there is a fee for civilian students, most are being funded by their employer, and combine study with workplace experience.

What’s in it for these students and their employers? According to those interviewed in Suddeutsche Zeitung, the main advantage was a much shorter period to graduation, partly because the military universities don’t take the lengthy vacations found elsewhere. They also appreciate the personal relationship with their professors, which is in turn the result of high staff ratios. And finally, they mentioned the benefits of military discipline, in that fellow students didn’t spend their time messing about (or, as I think of it,being students).

it sounds like good news all round – especially for conventional universities, who come under less pressure to change as a result. And I think there may be disadvantages as well. But it is an interesting development.

Tackling plagiarism in doctoral research

Universities in Germany have an unenviable task ahead of them. Despite a proud tradition of doctoral research, they have in recent years faced a mounting barrage of accusations of plagiarism. Most of the complaints have centred on politicians, who are in the public limelight. But if prominent politicians have plagiarised large parts of their doctoral theses, then of course the reputation of the whole system is at stake. And other cases are now coming to light, thanks to online plagiarism detection forums like VroniPlag.

So a lot rides on the question of how plagiarism accusations are dealt with. At its latest meeting, the conference of university rectors decided to advise its members that all cases of misconduct in doctoral research – plagiarism, data falsification,  unethical conduct – should in future be dealt with in private hearings, led by the university’s Ombudsperson.

At first, this sounds reasonable. Public debate over allegations is likely to taint the reputation and career of the accused, even if it ends by finding no misconduct. But there is a problem. All the cases detected so far have been investigated solely because the complainant decided to go public. Efforts to tackle the problem inside the system came to nothing. Inevitably, then, plenty of people are asking whether the university rectors are simply trying to sweep the problem under the carpet.

It’s tempting to see this as a specifically German problem, and nothing to do with the rest of us. Except that several other cases have come to light in other countries – and we can presumably expect more now that digitised doctoral theses are routinely published in institutional repositories.

Even one proven case of misconduct is enough to do incalculable reputational damage – to the individual, the university and the sector. Somehow, institutions need to develop procedures that combine protection of the innocent with enough transparency to assure the research community – and wider public – that malpractice is not being tolerated.