Why German higher-ed is looking more like McDonald's

German higher education has changed a lot. German dancing? Not so much.

When I began five years of study in Germany in 1989,  I noticed sharp differences between the German higher education system (almost all schools state-run and uniform, free of charge and permissive of long years of study) and the American one (expensive, with many private schools and an emphasis on the four-year degree).

Since then, many of those differences have softened under European integration, which has hit Germany with a number of Anglo-American-style reforms.

This has arguably pushed Germany in the direction of the American education model. The disruption has caused protests and strikes, highlighting concerns — such as the “McDonaldization of education” — that I never would have dreamed of back then.

Why should you care?

To get a good idea of what’s evolving, I spoke with Matthias Rothe, who just signed on as assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch. He came from the Europa – Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt-on-the-Oder, Germany.

(Rothe, by the way, has a dramatic story: He and two fellow students fled East Germany in May 1989 — six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And considering that this month marks the 20th anniversary of the unification of Germany, his presence is good timing.)

Make no mistake: Rothe is a fan of the American system, but has reservations about how elements of it are being implemented in Germany. Here are the notes of what he said, and the main changes he saw:

1) Fewer years of study:

The average student once took 5-7 years to get the traditional first degree (Diplom/Magister). (And you used to be able to study 10 years if you wanted to, and no one really cared.) But Germany has established the three-year bachelor’s degree — and universities have started to throw you out if you take too long. Now you’re learning in three years what you used to do in five. So instead of being fluid and far-reaching, German universities are beginning to appear more like schools — teaching a fixed “canon” of information to meet that three-year mark. As a result, there’s less time for debate and discussion, and things such as course variety and even opportunities for study abroad have dramatically decreased. Finally, people with three-year degrees in areas that usually take longer — such as law — can’t do much with them.

2) New fees:

Once-free universities, usually those located in states governed by conservatives, have introduced ever-higher annual enrollment fees, though at $670 per semester on the higher end, they’re still inexpensive and accessible to everyone. But some master’s courses are charging as much as 25,000 euros total (about $35,000) for an entire two-year program. This has led to an increasing commercialization of education.

3) Independence:

Universities used to be state-run. But in an attempt to gain some independence, a number have transformed themselves into “foundation universities,” which are somewhat akin to American nonprofits. Yet a number have found it difficult to attract the private funding they need, so the state has had to bail them out. This could pose a major problem in the future.

4) “Elite” universities:

Germany wants to compete with institutions such as Berkeley and Stanford, so the government is giving extra funding to selected university programs and research projects to support fields it finds important. That has broken down the system’s traditional egalitarianism and, in effect, created so-called “elite” universities.

5) Tough working conditions:

The hierarchy between full and part-time professors is almost feudal. German professors, once they get tenure, are like kings. But becoming one becoming really difficult, and those who don’t find their positions becoming increasingly precarious. About 95% of lecturer positions are temporary, and lots of them are 25%, 50% or 75% positions. And if you don’t become a tenured professor after 12 years — not at a university but in your overall career — you can’t work at any university any longer. You can still apply for full professorship, but chances are low that you’ll get one. Ageism is a problem. They expect you at 35 to already have written three books. If you don’t have full professorship at 45, then somehow you’re a loser. Everyone on the tenure track is concerned with writing books and papers and going to conferences out of fear of the competition. And many aspiring academics end up working for free because they want to maintain a connection to the university and continue on the path toward full professorship. Half of the teaching done at universities is by such faculty, and the quality of teaching and mentoring of students is definitely suffering because of the workload and low pay.

6) Fading of the liberal arts:

The German idea that Bildung (classic education) — that you learn something that changes your view of the world and how you deal with people — is not really there anymore. There is a trend towards the installation of new disciplines that seem to promise such immediate relevance, or an immediate payoff. My university, for example, changed some degrees to meet this demand. The chair dedicated to “literary theory” became the chair dedicated to “cultural management” because the latter is something students can use immediately in the job market.

7) Less stratification:

The German system has traditionally sent academically oriented students to universities, and the more practical students to so-called Fachhochschulen — schools that offer less theory and more hands-on training. But now to get more state money, universities have had to prove the practical relevance of various programs, and so have changed curricula and thus blurred that division between theoretical and practical education.


“I do think that the Germans could learn a lot from America (such as the emphasis on education, department structure, tenure track system etc.). But so far they have implanted only single elements into the German system which doesn’t fully support them. As a result, they remain completely foreign to German students and academics.”