Friday 18 July 2014

Leberwusrt University, somewhere in Germany

The catastrophic demise of German higher education

Prof. Dr. Stefan Schweinsteiger [*]

To respond to Dr. Thompson’s request to describe our university standards, I will describe the educational situation at the university that I work at, Leberwurst University [*]. Even though in Germany education policy is determined by the federal state, Leberwurst University is a fairly typical German university, and its educational policies and standards are similar to most of the many other German universities that I know.

Before I go into the horrors of Leberwurst education standards, first a bit of background, so the reader knows “where I’m coming from”. In my admittedly layman’s view (I am not an expert on education), the central aim of education is that students acquire certain skills and or knowledge which they did not possess before. In order to achieve this goal, two things need to happen. First, students go to an institution (for instance, a university) where they engage in intensive interactions with qualified experts who will teach them the required new skills and knowledge. Also, in order to facilitate the learning process, the students also do home assignments etc., supervised by the teacher. Secondly, in order to ensure that the students actually have acquired the desired skills and knowledge after the educational experience, the students are tested, for instance by taking verbal or written exams, doing home assignments, writing essays, etc. These tests enable the institution to establish the degree to which the student has become skilled and knowledgeable, usually with the help of a ‘grading system’ that quantifies the level of expertise that the student has reached. Testing students serves the purposes of quality control, both at the student level (universities, and presumably, the students themselves, want to know how competent a particular student has become) and at the university level (universities want to know how effective they are at educating students).

You may perhaps be yawning already, but trite as this all may sound, the German higher education policy does not share these assumptions at all. Generally, the aim is not to change students into more competent and knowledgeable people, but rather to give as many members of the population as possible a certified university education. The difference between educating people and giving people a certificate of education is comparable to the difference between a country increasing its GDP on the one hand, and simply printing more money on the other. This rather odd goal is motivated by the noble political ideology of Chancengleichheit (“equal opportunity”), which is also why our students have to pay nothing at all (as in: zero Euros) for the privilege of receiving a university education. At the end of this essay I will explain why and how the German education policy nevertheless manages to severely obstruct equal opportunity.

In Leberwurst University, the simple education strategy outlined above completely and utterly fails, for the following reasons.

First, it is forbidden for teachers to require their students to be present. I do not mean “mentally present” here; I mean, “physically present at the location where the education actually takes place”, e.g., a classroom or a lecture hall. It is forbidden to record the absence or presence of the students, and it is most certainly forbidden to use presence or absence of students as a criterion for grading, or for deciding who ‘passes’ or ‘fails’. This is not only the policy of the management of Leberwurst University (although it is) but it is also official federal state policy. We even got an official letter from the Federal Ministry of Education that told us that we are not allowed to require students’ presence, as this would violate educational law in that it would restrict the students’ Studierfreiheit (“freedom of study”) and even more serious, it would violate constitutional law because it would restrict the students’ Handlungsfreiheit (“freedom of action”). So if we as teachers require students to be educated at a certain location, we are illegally restricting them in their personal freedom. The consequences of this policy are disastrous. First of all, a very large percentage of students actually hardly ever show up in their seminars. Usually they drop by once or twice to get a bit of a taste of what’s going on, and that’s about it. For large lectures this is not much of a problem, because if students really believe they can pass the exam without the lectures, that’s their problem (more on this later). But for small and intensive seminars, where texts are discussed, techniques demonstrated, exercises explained and discussed, etc. etc., it is simply not possible to engage in meaningful educational interactions if the majority of the participants in this interaction is physically not present. Also, the few students that do show up occasionally are usually different ones every week, so it is not possible to build on material that has been covered before, forcing the teachers to make little stand-alone sessions without any cumulative coherence whatsoever. Another interesting consequence is that students sometimes enlist in two or three simultaneous courses, reasoning that if they don’t need to be present, they might just as well be absent at three courses at the same time. Finally, student evaluations of teachers become irrelevant and even absurd, if the students filling in forms about what they thought of the quality of the teaching have never even showed up at the actual teaching.

Now some may argue: why not just do a tough exam at the end of the course, and then the students who weren’t there will simply fail. Fail they will, but there are three reasons why this strategy does not work. First, a large majority of courses do not require a grade. For instance, in the BA program I teach, students will have to complete 25 courses (i.e., seminars, lectures etc.). Of these 25 courses, only four require a grade. The other courses require instead something called aktive Teilnahme (AT), “active participation” which is a very Orwellian name because it neither involves activity nor participation. To get AT, the students have to do something at least vaguely related to the content of the course, usually give a short talk about one of the articles they read, or hand in a summary or protocol. But the thing is: we are not allowed to judge (grade) the quality of the work that is handed in; we are only allowed to assess whether they have done it. The important legal criterion here is whether they have “put in some effort” (which the students can always claim to have done, and we can never disprove it). So if their requirements for AT in Wurstology 101 are “hand in an essay about the contemporary pricing policy of German wurst” and the student hands in a text saying only “I never eat wurst because I’m a vegetarian, so I have no idea”, they have formally complied with the request. And then there is literally nothing the teacher can do to stop this student from getting the AT certificate. Even if the student has otherwise never even been present at the course at all, doesn’t even know the name of the teacher, and everyone knows that the student’s knowledge of Wurstology is absolutely zero.

Second, even for those courses where grading is still allowed, you just can’t get away with failing 95 out of a 100 students. The management will sternly tell you that either your standards are too high, or you are a bad teacher, or both. And if you then tell the management: “no, but they just don’t show up when I teach”, the common reply by the management is “well, then your courses are apparently not attractive and student-friendly enough”. Also, failing students often results in legal procedures initiated by the students (which they very often win) and in any case in having more students to deal with in the next semester, because at Leberwurst, students can repeat courses indefinitely, as often as they like. So there are many strong incentives for teachers to give up their academic standards and just pass everyone at some point in time. The management’s pressure to pass students is to a large degree caused by pressure from the federal state government to lower the quota of students who fail to get a degree, so failing 95% of the students, no matter how justified, will lead to all kinds of (usually financial) negative consequences for the university and the faculty.

Which brings us to the next point: grade inflation. The German grade system is numerical with 1 meaning “excellent”, 2 “good”, 3 “satisfactory” and 4 “sufficient”. But giving someone a 2 or worse often results in either suicidal or legal behavior by the students, so the actual realistic margins are between 1 and 2. Even then, students getting a 1.7 often angrily demand an explanation why they didn’t get a 1.0. So when some funding organization once asked us to give them the list of the 5% best students on the basis of grades, we could not comply, because if a massive majority has an average of 1.0, the best 5% are simply not definable. So we were then asked to “intuitively” identify the best 5% of our students, which we can do, of course, but it obviously defeats the purpose of using a grading system. Even more absurd is the grading system of PhD theses. In our neighboring country The Netherlands for instance, the qualification “Cum Laude” is rather rare and indicates an exceptional performance of the PhD candidate. In Germany, the same qualification “Cum Laude” actually means: “dear candidate, please take your thesis and please discretely take the back exit and never show yourself at this university again, because we are extremely disappointed in your thesis”. We now have “Magna Cum Laude” and the highest, “Summa Cum Laude” for the acceptable and the good thesis respectively. At least, that was the case 15 years ago. Now the Summa is becoming the new norm, and it is seen as an “affront” to give someone anything lower than Summa. Interestingly, many German applicants who only have the default “Cum Laude” are undeservedly seen as geniuses in other countries, where this inflation has not taken place.

It is also not allowed at Leberwurst to require students to have successfully completed course A before one can follow some course B. So we cannot require any foreknowledge for any of our courses, except for the first year in which a few elementary courses have to be completed. This makes it very hard, if not impossible, to go deeper into complicated topics, because there are always some students lacking the necessary background, slowing the entire educational process down to a near-halt.

Generally, the students are very powerful at Leberwurst, and most of them are interesting in doing as little as possible while still getting their certificate as fast as possible. Professors are perceived as authoritarian relics from the past whose only elitist goal is to prevent students from getting the degree they deserve as a birthright. Students are fundamentally against any form of testing for which they can fail, and often have the political power to get to a large degree what they want, because the German educators are very reluctant to compare students and judge them qualitatively. The very idea that there are better students and worse students is strongly discouraged in our current educational ideology.

A good illustration of the mentality of the German student at Leberwurst is the following anecdote. A teacher was very annoyed by the fact that her students didn’t read the texts they were supposed to read. So she said: OK, you know what? Go home, read the text, and we’ll discuss the text next week. Instead of feeling ashamed about not having read the text, the students immediately went to the Dean to complain that the teacher was not fulfilling her legally required 9 hours of teaching per week.

The consequences of this type of educational environment are catastrophic. Leberwurst University is getting a very bad name in German industry (as are German universities generally), the students that leave Leberwurst with a certificate have hardly learned anything, and have acquired a very bad working mentality in the process.

Another thing that we can learn from this German educational “experiment” is that education is a contract between teacher and student. If one of these parties does not fulfill their side of the bargain, no education is taking place. Even the best teacher in the world cannot teach students anything if do not show up and invest some effort. Not only is this student-teacher dynamic very detrimental for the students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills, another not unimportant effect is that it really kills any residual didactical motivation in the teachers. And staying motivated is hard enough already for German professors with their legally minimal teaching load of nine hours per week.

As a final remark, the German educational policy seems to be a classic example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. If everyone can get high grades and a certificate without any form of talent and/or hard work, a smart person from a poor socio-economic background cannot distinguish her or himself from a not-so-smart person from a rich family. So by giving everybody effectively the same high grade or qualification, the end result is that the person from a poor background is deprived of the possibility to let his or her qualifications compensate for the cultural disadvantage. In the end, employers who need to select the best people cannot do so on the basis of grades, and will be tempted to look at less relevant aspects such as accent, manners or clothing style, in other words: indicators of social class.

[*] For reasons of anonymity, these are not real names.


  1. Spanish university is similar.

  2. yikes - that "freedom not to attend" is a chilling misuse of the term :) in the US we usually require attendance, but we grade very easily - a lot of "gift C's & D's" to pass students who were "underprepared" - code for double digit IQ from a protected group. but then we can sleep easily, thinking we gave that passing grade b/c hey, they showed up for class (it's to let the prof be able to live with him/herself:)

  3. If 'Prof. Schweinsteiger' is reading these comments, I would be interested in his opinion on how German universities compare with British universities in this respect.

    1. The Prof has asked me to reply thus: "That's a very interesting and relevant question. Unfortunately I'm not familiar enough with the British system to assess this properly. I really hope that people from British academia will respond to Dr.Thompson's call and share their experiences with us."

    2. Thanks for the response (and for facilitating it). I'm afraid my views on Higher Education in the UK are mostly based on my experiences as a student - partly at, let's say, the opposite end to the Oxbridge/ Russell Group institutions. My criticisms as a student mostly concern the breadth and scope of subjects covered (in modules) and the quality of assessment and support.

      I was surprised to read the Prof's points about German Higher Education. Like many other things, I have worked on the assumption of German integrity, hard work, discipline, quality etc - admittedly based on popular stereotypes. Perhaps the most surprising revelation to me was that students can be graded on 'AT'. Every aspect of my study (at two universities) has been assessed and graded based on activity and assignment submission.

      It really would be interesting to see opinions from academics who have experience of both systems.

  4. In Denmark, things are not this bad (at least at my university, AU). For the most soft areas of university, it is common to require participation (showing up). It is very annoying to me as I like to self-teach (to get the right speed of learning, lectures are too slow). Some courses are only graded by participation. Others are graded only by pass/fail, I think most of my linguistics courses are like this. There is no way to distinguish oneself in the grades in that way. Perhaps this lowers students' motivations.

    But then again, this is the same university with the Marxist leader who harassed Helmuth Nyborg.

    1. Translation and summary: "neuromathematician" claims the vigesimal naming of some numbers is the reason Danish kids do worse than Asian kids in maths...

  5. And I thought I had it bad. I can grade students based on their participation; in fact, there is a specific rule saying that if student fail to attend more than 1/3 of the classes, I am free to refuse to grade him at all (ie he has to attend the course one more time).

    And while there is some pressure not to fail too many students, I repeatedly failed more than half of the year without anyone trying to say I am a bad teacher.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. As a university student I would like to ask if some of the professors here could answer the question: why students should participate the classes? If I am able to read course material alone what extra can a teacher offer me?

  8. It may be good to discuss the materials with other students. Or perhaps the teacher knows things that are not in the teaching materials. Or you want to ask background questions. But if you can pass the exam without all that, yes, maybe you can indeed stay at home.

  9. Ok, good points!
    I was just wondering why participating in classes seems to be so important. And I can't understant why someone who is actively participating should earn better grades than someone who prefers to work alone. But obviously the need to participate depends on the subject.

  10. Thank you for the article. This is exactly the same problem that I've seen when I was teaching (Biology) about five years ago.

    The students that I had contact with were the laziest ever. They would not solve any homework assignment that took them more than 15 minutes of trying (which was probably a lie, I wonder if they tried at all).
    In the end, nearly all of them failed the exam. The exam was very simple, all of it was material that they should have learned in high school.

    Then they failed the 2nd chance as well. According to the regulation, that means that they failed the entire class and would need to repeat it.
    Now we neither had the resources, nor the desire, to do the same thing a year later. So in the end, all of them got a passing grade after a cursory oral exam.

    The students that I interacted with were so lazy that I doubt that they could have been representative for all of the students. I assume the smart students just didn't bother to come to class to listen to their friends' excuses of the day.

    For me personally it was a bad class, because it is very enjoyable teaching interested students, and I completely missed out on that.

    Now as far as other countries go (UK, US: I am talking to you!). Rest assured that the situation is exactly as in Germany.
    The only difference is that they are so much better at self-promotion than we are and would never criticize their university, because it is the brand that guarantees them income.

    No faculty would ever admit that American universities are not respected by the industry. That would be a tremendous faux-pas against academic etiquette.
    The students get indoctrinated from day one that they are the chosen ones and behave accordingly. Why not, they pay a lot of money and want to hear a little praise in return.

    Here is an interesting article, The Decline and Fall of the British University

    One final comment about the German industry. They are whiners. If they don't like the students, then they should train people on the job or pay more to keep the good people from going to the US.

    I doubt that they have any comparison with students from other educational systems.
    As someone who has traveled all over the world, I can tell you that the German system is not that much different from that of the most lauded American universities, and definitely better than many others that I've worked with.

  11. Hi!

    German student here who also studied in the UK (in the humanities). I like the British system with constant assignments that help you write precise and analytic pieces. You are introduced to a range of new topics by lecture and then given a list of essay topics. You research and immerse yourself into a specific topic. Usually the essay titles force you to take sides on a controversial issue. I find that brillant.

    But here is the big difference to Germany. The weekly lectures, seminars etc are much fewer than in Germany. You simply do not have the time during the semester to write semi-specialist pieces in Germany. Also, exam period in the UK is usually at the end of the academic year with a couple of months for exam preparation. Here in Germany, the exam period starts with the last lecture, each semester!

    I can understand that lecturers complain about attendance in seminars. A seminar is designed for debating and reflecting upon the topics presented in lectures or assigned readings. I do not question this. But a lot of lectures, especially in medicine (my second degree) are just plain useless. You have to read the text books no matter what, there is nothing to understand as most is usually just learning facts and the lectures are just a reading out of facts.

    I visited mathematics lectures at a German university for two semesters. Often those lectures follow a script or a book very closely. Only few lecturers added something to their script, explained something or gave us tips for solving a problem. What is the point of attending such a lecture when all that is done is reading the script out loud? The script is a necessity and a lecture course without a script would be awful, but few lecturers understood that you can build on your script/book.

    I agree that the German higher education system is shambles, but the attendance problem is not a new one. One result of the Bologna reform was to introduce required attendance for almost everything. In the old times of Diplom and Magister almost no attendance was required. And I know from anecdotes that in those days attendance was not higher.

  12. A German professor replies: You are right that many German lectures ("Vorlesungen") are excruciatingly boring and redundant, and are in that sense comparable to the "Vogon poetry torture" described in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's
    guide to the galaxy. Indeed, nobody I know wants attendance requirements for lectures. But as you rightly say, for discussion seminars etc. it is essential to have people present. But we just got a letter from a government lawyer saying that we aren't allowed to use the necessity of "discussion" as an "excuse" to force our poor
    students to be physically present. Which is odd, because 10 years ago, the goverment urged us to make education more "interactive" all the time.

    I can also sympathize to a degree with the desire not to have too high
    an exam load. But nobody needs to worry about that anymore at
    Leberwurst. The bar for passing an exam is now so low that just
    showing up in an approximately conscious state of mind will usually
    suffice to get a good grade. There are also iterative regrading
    procedures in place, ensuring that it is actually rather hard to fail,
    even if you would deliberately try. This may have to do that we get
    financially punished if our students fail. But it is also because the
    current generation of students tend to get very upset when there is
    any prospect of failure.

    The saddest side effect of this system is that people who come out of
    this system with a formal degree have not learned very much (to say it
    nicely). What a waste of time, energy, and taxpayer money.

  13. I would like to contrast this report with a description the exams I had to take in order to finish my bachelor's degree in computer science (a 6 semester programme), which I recently did.

    I sat 24 written examinations, 3 oral examinations, had to complete 3 software development projects, one seminar and a thesis, which required about 4 month in which I spend about 30 hours per week on it, so let's say 3 month full time work. Every single one of those examinations was graded, and in most of them the average grade somewhere between 3.x and 2.x, depending on whether or not the avarage was calculated including both the students who passed and failed or only those who passed. Apart from that, in about half a dozent of the subjects it was a requirement to complete assignments during the semester, of which more than 50% needed to be correct to complete the module (that is to say, passing the assignments and passing the exam where to things which had to be accomplished independently of one another). And apart from the assignments every exam could be done exactly twice. If one exam was failed twice, there was a final oral examination which would determine whether the course was passed with a 4.0 (the worst mark which is a pass grade) or failed completely.

    The implication of failing a course completely a from a student's perspective only short from disastrous, because failing a course means failing the whole degree programme plus being forbidden to enroll in a similar degree programme in any German university. Even if one had successfully completed the course work of 5 semesters and the subject one failed would be an elective course, this would still apply.

    Also, the main form of teaching were lectures. Some of the were quite good despite the fact that they were held for a huge audience (300+), which made student teacher interaction if not quite impossible at least rather difficult. There was exactly one seminar, which was limited to a dozend or so people, so places were rare, no one got more than one in a 3 year programme (and even if, it would not have been possible to get credit for it) - and of course attendance was compulsory for this. But to be fair, it have been only 6 sessions which consisted of an introduction into the formal aspects of scientific writing and then after a break in which a 12-15 page paper had to be written, the 5 sessions consisting of talks of every student.

    And also some of the lectures would have been really a waste of time, because they simply consisted of an endless stream of slides which were read out in an monotonous manner which made it quite hard to stay focused (or even awake, for that matter). Why on earth would anybody stay for that?

    I would be quite interested in which federal state Leberwurst Uni and Mr Schweinsteiger are located. My best guess would be North-Rhine Westphalia, but that's just a hunch.

  14. Yes, it sounds like Leberwurst is in NRW or Baden-Württemberg. So where did you have your hard-core learning experience? In Bayern? And would you have preferred the Leberwurst approach?