Should German universities introduce bachelor's and master's degrees? While supporters hope the proposal will speed up studies and boost the chances of German graduates in the increasingly global job market for academics, critical voices bemoan the sacrifice of tradition and fear that Germany's high education standards might suffer.

The recommendation, from the Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat), was presented at a press conference 4 weeks ago in Berlin by the council's president Winfried Schulze. Its resolution on the "Introduction of new study structures and degrees" was the council's reaction to a controversial debate: German students spend too much time at university and so are handicapped when trying to break into the international job market. The average age at graduation in Germany is 28--considerably older than in the U.K. or U.S. (both 22 on average). This, claims the council, is mainly the result of antiquated course structures and academic degrees, which last 5 years on average. It recommends that universities should have room to adopt more flexible teaching styles and shorter periods of study.

Controversially, the council suggests that the "employability" of a university's graduates is the most important measure of its performance. This implies that the goals of university education will have to be reexamined and adapted to the requirements of the job market. "These goals cannot be reached within the current comparatively rigid education and graduation structures of the current German university system," says the council.

What Is the Science Council?

The Science Council (Wissenschaftsrat) is the highest advisory body to the federal and state governments in the field of science policy. The governments, the Federation-States Commission for Education and Research Funding (BLK), and the Conference of the Ministers of Culture (KMK), can request expert opinions from the Science Council on the development of universities, science, and research. Federal and state governments have committed to consider the council's recommendations within the constraints of their budgets.

The Science Council consists of two commissions: the Scientific Commission with 32 seats and the Administrative Commission with 22 seats. The German president appoints 24 members of the Scientific Commission, from candidates proposed by the major research organizations. The other eight members are appointed jointly by the federal and state governments, mostly being representatives of public life and industry. In the Administrative Commission the federal government's six representatives have 16 votes that can only be used jointly. The other 16 votes belong to representatives from the 16 states' cultural ministries.

Accordingly, the plenary meeting of the council has 54 members carrying 64 votes. Recommendations of the science council require a two-thirds majority of the votes from the plenary meeting.

According to the experts, in the future higher education should be shorter, practice-orientated, and lead to internationally accepted degrees. After 4, or preferably 3, years of undergraduate studies, the average student should leave his or her alma mater with an American-style "Bakkalaureus," or bachelor's degree. Study should also include a stronger focus on transferable skills and key qualifications like computer literacy, economics, and foreign languages, the commission says.

Before the council's vision is widely adopted by German universities, it will have to win over the critics by proving its practical value. Wolfgang Löwer from the Hochschulverband (DHV, union of university teachers) is not too enthusiastic about the experts' paper. German students already enter university 2 to 3 years later than in other countries for reasons that are completely independent from the universities, compulsory army service for example, Löwer explains. "So why should we sacrifice the high standards of the German university?" he wonders. Also, "preparing people for their future profession was always the task of the universities," Löwer thinks. "Claiming that this is something new seems to be [an effort to appear] trendy," he tells Next Wave. And the student union, fzs, although generally supporting the upcoming changes in the university system, tends to be skeptical: "We fear that the new degrees might foster an elite by expelling less wealthy students after the BA to the job market," says fzs's Kerry Sailer.

However, an increasing number of universities are already field testing the new structures and degrees. Universities like Bochum, Erfurt, and Constance have successfully proved that the council's recommendations not only work, but also attract numerous students. The Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) was one of the first to switch entirely to master's and bachelor's degrees in the humanities, and decided recently to offer these degrees in the sciences, starting in the winter semester 2000/2001. "Young scientists especially all want international compatibility," says Harro Müller-Michaels, Pro-Rector for education at the RUB.