Friday, January 2, 2015

The three pillars of Germany’s university system

University of technology, university of applied sciences or just university? The terminology is confusing, in particular for those who are used to the British system of universities and affiliated colleges. In Germany, you will look in vain for colleges; instead you encounter three different types of universities that have no equivalent in English-speaking countries like the UK, US or Australia. Still, Germany’s system is not unique: you find similar institutional distinctions in Austria, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

General universities (i.e. institutions that just call themselves “university”) offer a wide spectrum of academic disciplines, from the humanities and sciences to medicine and law. Engineering subjects can also be found at general universities, but they are concentrated at universities of technology (TU or TH in German) and universities of applied sciences (UAS or FH/HS in German). All universities in Germany, no matter which category they belong to, are independent institutions without any affiliations. They can conduct their own examinations and award their own degrees, except for a few disciplines like medicine, pharmacy and law, where centralised state exams are prescribed.

People used to a commercialised system of higher education with “first-class”, “second-class” etc. institutions have sometimes voiced the opinion that the UAS are “inferior” to the other two types of German universities. This is not the case. The difference is a functional one and not one of quality. As their name says, the universities of applied sciences have been established with the primary intention to make scientific knowledge and research findings applicable to the needs of private companies, social service agencies and government institutions. They do not train “pure” researchers, which is also the reason why they do not award doctoral degrees. However, if a UAS student discovers her or his passion for “pure” research at a later stage, it is always possible to cross over to a general university or university of technology.

When it comes to the practical application of their skills, graduates of UAS frequently perform better than their more theoretically educated fellow graduates. Additionally, most UAS are closely integrated into the economies of their respective home regions. In other words: Regional industry and public administration are tied into the research and teaching at the UAS in the form of concrete cooperation projects. This helps students with finding internships, relevant topics for their theses and suitable jobs upon graduation. 

The fact that UAS are commonly smaller institutions with a more limited student population and a shorter tradition to look back on has led to their widespread discrimination in international rankings. These rankings are generally unable to grasp the intricacies of Germany's multi-facetted university system. The quality of education offered by the UAS, the relevance of their findings in applied research, the tight organisation of their curricula and their often superior services (including the better guidance and supervision of students) have been proven by many surveys and studies. Some UAS have in fact acquired an academic and scientific reputation far over-taking that of many larger general universities or universities of technology.

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