Bolognese sauce: dropping out in Germany

For many academics in these islands, the Bologna process sits low on the horizon. This is not just stereotypical British/Irish insularity. On the whole, the decision by most European countries to move towards a standard system of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, involving similar periods of study across all the participating national systems, sounded to us like minimal change.

Bologna meant that it would become much easier to compare degrees from different countries and universities, because the titles and periods of study would be broadly similar. It was also in many countries intended to promote efficiency and improve completion. If the average time to graduation was around seven or eight years, then the idea of a three-year Bachelor’s programme sounded very attractive to governments, as well as to universities and presumably many parents.

Has it worked out? A recent report in Germany suggests that hopes of improved completion are not yet being realised. Of those German students who embarked on a Bachelor’s degree in 2006/7, 28% left without a degree. This is three per cent higher than for the cohort who started in 2004/5, before the Bologna reforms were fully implemented. Unfortunately, though the report does note that one in every two foreign students left without a degree, otherwise the German data do not distinguish between different types of student.

Of course, we can and should enter all sorts of qualifications to these figures. We do not know how many of the ‘leavers’ will return to complete their studies at a later stage; we do not know why they left, nor whether they are better or worse off as a result. All the same, the trend is upwards, at a time when the policy makers and academic managers expected the number of early leavers to decline. Why?

One possible answer lies in the institutional pattern. The withdrawal rate for the 2006/7 cohort was 19% in the Fachhochschulen (FHS) loosely translated as vocational polytechnics) and 35% in the universities. The FHS were faster to move to a Bachelors/Masters structure, and went through a similar period of high withdrawal before the reforms bedded in. There is also a better prospect in an FHS of transferring to another subject rather than withdrawing altogether.

Meanwhile, many in the universities struggled with the very idea of someone completing their higher education in a mere three years. In some subjects, such as engineering, barely a half of university students graduated. Many university academics lament the disappearance of the old Diplom, which supposedly took five years (in practice, usually longer), and criticise the tendency towards modularity inherent in the three-plus-two year Bachelors/Masters structure.

It also remains to be seen whether German employers will accept job applicants who have a Bachelor’s degree alone, or whether they will still prefer those who have studied for five years.  The early signs are that Bachelor’s degrees are holding their own in the labour market, or at least are proving more attractive to employers than many – including myself – had expected.

Germany is the largest country in the European Union (although not in the Bologna process, which also involves Russia and Turkey among others). While some of the implementation difficulties can be laid at the door of Germany’s universities, and the famously rigid mindsets of the German professoriate, this is still an important signal of greater challenges to come. It is also a signal that institutional type still matters: the FHS are clearly better equipped to handle innovations like Bologna, the universities are better at defending a traditional view of knowledge and study – though this report suggests that while they can disrupt the planned changes, they still have to appear to implement them. This looks to me like a risky strategy.


 U. Heublein, J. Richter, R. Schmelzer & D. Sommer, Die Entwicklung der Schwund- und Studienabbruchquoten an den deutschen Hochschulen: Statistische Berechnungen auf der basis des Absolventenjahrgangs 2010, Hochschul-Informations-System, Hannover, 2012.