Inflation at German universities: Too many students nowadays?

Germany has proven to be one of the most attractive destinations for students in Europe. High standards, quality of education and attention to detail are just some of the traits the German higher education system prides itself on. But in recent years, a new problem has risen. With free tuition, easily accessible student loans and a rising popularity of German universities, the academic scene in the country may soon be full with more students than it can handle. Universities are using some strategies to cope with the congestion in lecture halls, but it is questionable whether they are enough. The aim of this article is to discuss the current situation of overcrowding at German higher education institutions by taking a closer look at both the factors contributing to that problem and some of the key strategies universities in Germany use to cope with it.

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On the root of the problem: Why are German universities overcrowded?

Looking at universities in Germany today, several points must be considered. First of all, “overcrowded” is not a term that can be universally applied to all 17,000 degree programs in all 400 higher education institutions existing in Germany today. It is natural that some programs attract more applicants and therefore might lead to admitting more students than the institutions can logistically handle. Such programs are, for example, “Medicine” and “Law”. They can be distinguished by the huge number of students who have been turned down and are forced to wait one or more semesters. 

Another point to consider is the type of university. The great number of students is particularly problematic at public universities, not necessarily at private universities. Despite the prejudice against private education, they have grown more and more popular in Germany in recent years. Since the 1990s, the number of private institutions in the country has increased from 23 to over 100. Private universities provide modern facilities, state-of-the-art technology and great overall conditions, but the tuition fees serve as a barrier for many prospective students. That is why one of the biggest advantages of private universities is that they offer is that they are not overcrowded.

Still, the reality is that that there are indeed too many students at German universities. The issue has progressed over the last decade to the point that nowadays there is an imbalance between professorial chairs and the large number of students. The average number of students per professor is between 50 and 100, but in some extreme cases, there are up to several hundred students per one professor. That is a serious problem in the higher education system, because lecturers no longer have the ability to give personal attention to their students and help them with their individual tasks and questions. Furthermore, this leads to a huge logistical problem: Lecture halls that are intended for up to 500 students, for example, now have to host over 700. As can be expected, this in itself also creates additional issues, such as shortages and misdistributions of resources, and an inability to cope with the never-ending stream of students. In some instances, lectures have to even be held twice in order to teach classes of over 1000 students.

That so many higher education institutions are struggling to cope with a number of students that greatly exceeds their capacity is due, among other things, to the factors mentioned below.

Free tuition at public universities

Perhaps the most obvious cause of the overcrowding in German universities can be pinned to the lack of tuition fees. Since the official abolition of tuition fees by Germany's 16 states in 2014, an almost domino-like effect has occurred. The enrollment rate quickly rose by 22%. Generally speaking, this can be viewed as a positive effect – young people are interested in their education, want to pursue an academic degree and receive relevant qualifications. But looking at the situation today, one discovers that a lot of downsides have appeared. Free tuition is a very controversial topic. For countries like Great Britain and the USA, it is almost impossible to imagine that a system based on free tuition is sustainable. The absence of tuition fees sets the tone for easily accessible education. It is important to note that students still pay small administrative fees of around 300 EUR per semester. Apart from that, education is “free for all”. Is that too good to be true?

Free tuition has been an ongoing discussion for many years. The advantages are obvious, but could it lead to too many complications? Of course, the biggest issue is the overcrowding of lecture halls. But what’s more, universities are experiencing shortages of resources. So, it is still to be proven whether an education system based on free tuition can survive. 

Some universities have tried to reintroduce tuition fees, but have only been met with student protests. Critics state that the return of tuition fees would only lead to students rushing through their education in order to avoid paying for more semesters, and a significant drop in applications for higher education institutions.

Students taking too long to finish their degrees

It is common practice for German students to delay their graduation by a few semesters. Therefore, in the 1990s there was a proposal in the state of Baden-Württemberg to charge students a penalty when they were taking longer than 13 to 14 semesters to graduate. This tendency for students to extend their period of study can be interpreted as a result from free tuition, which in turn creates even more overcrowding in the universities.

Switching courses extends the study period

It is a common problem for high school graduates to be unsure of what degree to pursue  at university. Many enroll at a program that sounds great at first but during the course of the study turns out to be not what they expected. As result, they decide to switch their course and move to a different one. As reasonable as that may be, it is a fact that switching courses  extends the time spent in academia and thus potentially contributes to even more overcrowding at German universities.

Grants and student loans

Apart from free tuition, applicants are also offered various study financing options. Various types of grants and student loans are available, and since education is free, they are usually used to help cover accommodation taxes and living costs. However, by making higher education even more accessible, student loans, too, can be considered a contributing factor to the overcrowding of universities.

Softened admission requirements

When discussing the problem of German higher education institutions exceeding their capacity, it is important to consider university admission requirements in the German higher education system as well. For most universities, the main requirement is a university entrance qualification, or “Abitur”. However, admission requirements have been softened in that in some cases there is the possibility of enrolling at university without the “Abitur” entrance qualification. If an applicant has fulfilled several years of practical training at a relevant position, or has passed a subject-specific exam, that can prove sufficient to pursue a Bachelor’s degree. In most cases, such procedure is applied to technical colleges, but it is a fairly new concept, and more and more higher education institutions are becoming open to it. In the state of Hesse, for example, students holding a Fachhochschulreife (certificate of secondary-level education) can be accepted into any degree program.

An attractive destination for foreigners and refugees

It is no secret that Germany is one of the most attractive destinations for higher education in Europe. Because EU citizens can benefit from free tuition, it unsurprising that Germany is a desired place for them to pursue their degree. Aggravating this situation, the German government, in the wake of the refugee crisis, has developed a new strategy: refugees are permitted to attend lectures for free as guest students. If a refugee provides proof of acceptance at an asylum, then they are even able to continue their studies as degree pursuers. So, naturally this contributes to the chaos in the German higher education system and fills universities with even more students.

Brexit could potentially cause even more havoc

English-taught courses at German universities are not as popular for now. However, this might change very quickly because of Brexit . So far, nothing has changed for foreign students enrolled in UK universities, but the future is uncertain. The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union may create a number of potential problems for foreign students, such as changes in visa requirements and an increase in tuition fees. Because higher education in the UK is quite pricey, student loans are a very popular concept. But if the UK exits the EU, this option may become no longer available for international students. As a consequence, international students may choose to turn to Germany instead and benefit from the opportunity to study in English.

Coping strategies: How universities are restricting admissions

Students across the country are protesting. They are demanding appropriate changes be made. The student body at the University of Frankfurt is asking for more lecturers and bigger lecture halls. Professors, on the other hand, are requesting more money to be put into education by the government, but so far this need has not been met. 

By 2020, around 500,000 students will have been added to the German higher education system compared to ten years ago. Some departments are already exceeding their capacity by being full at 170 to 200% percent. Universities are struggling to keep up and therefore looking for strategies to help them cope with this overflow of students.

Numerus clausus aka restricted admissions

One of the most famous, or rather notorious, coping strategies for dealing with the high number of applicants is the “numerus clausus” . In theory, the numerus clausus is a method used to restrict admissions in some of the most competitive fields of study, or simply where the number of applicants greatly exceeds the university’s capacity. But how is it that those exact degree courses are still the most overcrowded? It seems that German universities are still increasing their capacities and are accepting way more students than they can logistically handle. So it is rather questionable whether the numerus clausus really is a successful coping strategy.

Expulsion of undergraduates

Another strategy popular at many universities is the expulsion of undergraduates after a failed semester. Because degree programs like “Law” and “Medicine” are so difficult, it is common practice that although many students are accepted, not all of them pass their exams. In some of their first lectures, students hear from their professors that “students must go”.

Charging non-EU students

The federal state of Baden-Württemberg has begun to charge tuition fees from non-EU students. This has proven to be a successful coping strategy against overcrowding, as in recent years many universities in Baden-Württemberg have experienced a drop of around 20% in non-EU enrollments.

Is Merkel’s government planning to reintroduce tuition fees?

It is a fact that attendance at German higher education institutions for some of the most popular degree programs greatly exceeds their capacity and the problem seems to be only growing. According to recent forecasts, the number of applicants at universities has is not going to be decreasing anytime soon. This fact poses the question of how German universities are preparing for the future if they are already struggling to cope with the overcrowding. 

For now, the reintroduction of tuition fees is off the agenda for the German higher education system, even though some federal states have called for it. However, Chancellor Merkel’s government is determined to prevent states from gathering more structural deficits. This paves the way for more upcoming debates on the possibility of reestablishing tuition fees. Some predict that tuition fees will be reintroduced by 2020.

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