Does studying in Germany suck balls?

That is what one might glean from a widely read article by Finnish student Juuso Nisula (JN in the following) which appeared this week on the website of German newspaper “Die Zeit” (original text published on his blog). There is also a German version, but regrettably, the parts containing the more juicy formulations, such as the one quoted in this post’s title, have been cut from that. JN does, however, state very clearly and very quickly that his remarks are actually based on personal experience at the Faculty of Finance at the University of Cologne and do not automatically apply elsewhere. I have very little doubt that the problems he cites are not exclusive to this specific department at this specific university, but that doesn’t mean they are always universal in Germany, at least to the extent he describes. So I thought as a service to casual readers who are considering to study abroad, I offer some comments on his “eight reasons not to study in Germany” from my perspective. During my studies, which ended in the not-too-distant past, I also spent some time at the University of Cologne as well as (much more, and more recently) at the University of Bonn, and they were in mathematics rather than some economic subject.

I will mostly focus on the degree to which I did or did not encounter the same problems as JN during that time, although I will occasionally stray into comments on the situation in other fields of study. It is hopefully clear that I don’t want to contradict the facts of the JN account in any way: I completely believe him that the situation at the university and faculty he chooses to focus on is largely as he describes. The main goal here is to provide a limited, but hopefully interesting, view on the degree to which the points from the “Zeit” piece are generalizable. My short answer is: Some are, others are not. Personally, these things did not bother me enough to hate my whole time at the university, but I agree that some of them are important issues worth addressing. So, this is intended less to be a response or refutation, but more a “compare and contrast”. Nevertheless, I also don’t quite always agree with the author’s opinions, and will hopefully make clear at which points that is the case.

Let’s start:

1. “Pedagogy – or lack thereof”

The first section is a bit oddly titled, as JN’s main complaint seems to be the lack of online documentation of lectures and homework solutions. (Although he does also seem unhappy with what he calls a “monologuing” style of lectures and exercise group sessions.)

Regarding the former point, my experience is that this depends largely on the people organizing a lecture, and often a bit of luck. Sometimes, extensive lecture notes and solutions to all homework problems will be put on the course homepage, sometimes, an incomprehensible script and messy solutions will be provided, sometimes nothing at all. Sometimes, the lecturer and lecture assistant themselves will take care of these things, sometimes paid positions for notetaking will be available, sometimes not. Many teachers who are hesitant to upload online materials cite two concerns: 1) That people will cease coming to their courses if they do and 2) that mistakes which might be contained in scripts and, more worryingly to them, exercise solutions, could be exploited in lawsuits by students who failed their exams. Neither has ever struck me as a particularly strong reason: The first one displays a weird lack of pedagogical self-confidence. I say “weird” because it seems by no means exclusive to people who are bad at lecturing, so not actually being able to provide any value beyond a written script is not always the issue here. I do not know how realistic the legal worries are, but I have seen many courses put up solutions with a disclaimer that there is no guarantee on their correctness, and as far as I know, none of them has ever suffered such repercussions. Needless to say that the presentation in actual lecture and exercise group sessions may contain errors, too.

I would certainly welcome it if more German universities would set something like minimal standards on how much of a lecture must be documented online. Even a scan of a professor’s own notes and a lecture assistant’s handwritten homework solutions would be enough to check what you have jotted down during classes, or get a rough idea of what’s been going on when you have been sick.

2. “The Grading”

Now, the points of criticism in this section seem much more peculiar to me: The article states that studies of finance in Cologne are geared towards repetition of rote memorized materials at specific test dates, only to forget everything you have learned a week later. Homework problems were only given in one class he took, JN tells us, and counted for just five perecent of the grade, otherwise there are “no cases, no presentations, no essays, no assignments, no learning diaries, no learning groups, no pondering, no critique, no independent thinking or feedback”.

Personally, I must confess I am actually kind of glad I never had to keep a “learning diary”, but what I did have to do as an undergraduate – and if you study maths and some other subjects like e.g. physics in Germany, that will be the case pretty much everywhere – was hand in solutions to a homework sheet every week, and only with at least 50% of all points would I be admitted to the final exam (sheets usually can be handed in in groups of up to two or three people). The number of exercise points was not usually included in the grade. How much of an improvement over the Cologne Finance way this really is depends on both the lecture assistant’s ability to pose interesting and difficulty-wise well-calibrated problems, and on the personality and ability of the individual student: To some extent it is an incentive to concentrate on the easiest parts of the homework, rather than make a possibly doomed and concentration-consuming attempt at the hardest problems (from which, mostly, you can also learn the most). It also means that some people will be in a constant race to keep up with the 50% demand, and that this will distract them from catching up with lecture material they might actually need to solve the exercises. It does, however, force students to constantly keep up with a minimal standard of knowledge or drop out of a class, so it may work reasonably well for the average student. At any rate, during graduate studies, some lectures will relax a little on this and provide only voluntary homework, while others will still demand you pass the 50% bar on exercise points. Humanities and social sciences don’t generally seem to have this kind of system, but at least that leaves their students a little more time for worthy extracurricular activities (and alcohol).

3. “The Exams”

In this part JN continues the theme that, apparently, Business studies in Cologne emphasize the rote repetition of facts over problem solving and concepts. The exams, we learn are basically speed memory tests, to the point that the same question is asked five times just to see how fast the student can write down the same answer. That is obviously insane when your goal is to test someone’s knowledge of the facts rather than hammer them into his or her mind before such a test. The time for exams this is limited to 60 minutes.

Thankfully, this isn’t a problem I ever had to deal with: I can’t recall a single university exam in my life that lasted less than 2 hours, and mathematics just isn’t that easily reduced to mere memorization of knowledge (which is a considerable problem for many beginning students), nor do lecturers usually have the intention to do so. Honestly spoken, I don’t know how these things are at other universities, or even at other departments of my old university, but guessing from accounts I have heard from others, it again depends on the subject: If you study natural science or even (being a snob here) engineering, you don’t usually have to be concerned about these points, but I have occasionally heard similar complaints to the “Zeit” article from people who were doing courses in subjects like economics or the humanities. And yes, 60 minutes seems to be a frequently chosen duration for economics exams. Still, I have also seen master level exams in finance which did put some emphasis on application and understanding of concepts (but still took 60 minutes).

4. “Bureaucracy, anyone?”

The fourth point is about something that is hardly a make-it-or-break-it factor for a good university experience, but can be annoying nevertheless: The gargantuan number of ID cards many institutions of higher education in Germany require, for purposes ranging from going to the library over usage as a semester ticket for public transportation to eating in the cafeteria. Apparently, Cologne even requires people to use separate identifications for exams, additionally to the “normal” student card.

Several universities here have united all of these functions in a single “UniCard”, but neither Cologne nor Bonn are among them so far – although both seem set to introduce it somewhere in the near future (Cologne: next semester). In fact, the debate on introducing it has been raging at the University of Bonn throughout the time I have been studying there, without result. Nevertheless, the reason this idea has met so much resistance are concerns about privacy and security, which I personally think should not be dismissed out of hand. But yes, the consequence is a somewhat messy and inefficient situation, which may or may not go on much longer at various universities.

5. “Prüfungsamt”

The term “Prüfungsamt” literally means “Bureau of examinations”, and describes an institution that sets dates for exams, manages student registrations, provides you with authorized transcripts of records when you need them, deals with you when some kind of bureaucratic problem comes up etc. The article describes the Cologne Finance Prüfungsamt as unorganized (missing deadlines, scheduling exams on unpleasant dates such as the week after carnival), unhelpful to students and unwilling to use such novel technology as electronic mail. The author also seems to regard the whole institution as superfluous, writing, “If we were back in China, I’d suppose the Party just wanted to employ more people but didn’t know what to do with them and so decided to add an extra block into the organization structure. […] Just get rid of the whole Prüfungsamt. That’s how it works elsewhere, and it works better.”

I have had my share of unpleasant bureaucratic experiences, but unlike the author I can blame none of them on the people I directly had to deal with at Prüfungsamt. All of them have been rather helpful in resolving my problems, including at least one instance where it was pretty much undisputably I who screwed up, not the people who made the examination regulations. It is highly possible that this experience is nonrepresentative, but this is how things went for me, and whether the institution is burden or boon might depend more on the competence of the people hired, as well as perhaps the overall culture of an academic department. I must confess I don’t know much about the study organization at foreign universities, but I think the functions of Prüfungsamt will always have to be taken up by someone (e.g. many American universities seem to have an “Office of the Registrar” whose tasks appear to have some overlap with the German Prüfungsamt). What I would like to see much more is some of the higher-ups who make the examination rules to take the advice of Charles de Montesquieu: “If it is not necessary to pass a law, it is necessary not to pass it.”

6. “The use of technology”

Next, the author bemoans the fact that the tech side of his studies has been largely mismanaged: He describes huge problems with finding relevant information and using the university’s online systems. He also cites one instance where he was required to hand in a seminar paper as a print-out rather than a PDF file, and provide all his sources on CD, asking, “What’s next, a floppy disk?”

Once again, I have heard several complaints from people studying at other faculties about my university’s online systems, but didn’t really have that many myself. However, this doesn’t mean that much coming from me, as I only ever had to use them to a very limited extent: Mostly it was just registration for the exercises, registration for the exams, and end of story. However, over the years I have read many articles in student newspapers that using the platform employed for such purposes (“Basis”) works much worse for people studying certain other subjects than my own (mostly, I know it from humanities majors), and I don’t know to what extent these issues have been fixed by now. Moreover, when I say I “registered for the exercises”, this does not, unfortunately, mean I registered for the exercise groups via this venue, but only that I had to obey a weird university rule. In “my time” (yes, I’m old), finding an appointment for your homework session was a matter of winning a chaotic battle against your fellow students to write your name on lists that were laid out in the lecture hall. Thankfully, by now the math department seems to have switched to online registration for that. I mention this because I saw the math department of Cologne use the power of the internet to organize exercise groups much earlier, so how good a university looks relative to another really changes not only from department to department, but also from criterion to criterion applied. Or perhaps I just want to complain how much easier than me young people at my university have it nowadays…

Anyway, moving on: Exercise sheets and online learning material (to whatever extent it existed) were usually available on a public course website, which I don’t count as part of an “online system”. Finding these websites via search engine can have varying degrees of difficulty, but almost always, there is a link on the lecturer’s homepage. There is also an e-learning platform at the University of Bonn, and the one time I ever used it, it worked reasonably well. Still, navigation to a specific lecture in that system really can be a bit of a chore, particularly (as the “Zeit” article states) when you don’t speak German. Also, it is not only exclusively available to registered students with a university id, but sometimes courses must also be accessed via a password that is given out in the lecture itself (why so secretive? and what about people who want to seek out old lecture notes and exams? or even people who want to look into other subjects?). So, yes, there are issues.

7. “Facilities”

The penultimate item on the author’s list of indictments is the fact that German universities don’t usually have 24/7 facilities. He also mentions the apparent hardness of using a computer at the University of Cologne. His proposal is to include a function in the new University cards which enables students to enter the library even on Sundays, a practice he says is successfully employed elsewhere.

That’s an interesting idea I have never thought about, although I have some doubts if German academic administrations are willing to let students roam these facilities unsupervised. The closing time of many libraries was extended to 11 p.m. shortly before or shortly after I started (not sure here), but none is opened 24 hours on 7 days a week. As far as the laptop and computer situation at my alma mater is concerned, I think it is rather better than the one this article describes, but it depends on the building you are in.

8. “Disregard of Communication”

Many disparate examples of bad communication are cited here, with students learning far too crucial organizational details way too late, but the most important one is the considerable time it takes for students to learn their grades. Also, he implies that people who do not speak German can only hope for the assistance of a higher power in such an event.

Thankfully, I could look up my grades in our online system throughout pretty much all of my studies, and it never took terribly long until they were announced. I can’t judge how easy or hard it is for non-German speakers to study here. but at the very least, all organizational mails I ever got from my university during master studies were bilingual (English and German).

So, overall, I have had some more luck than the author, and consequently didn’t come away with the notion that my university education was merely “a pain in the ass” (actual quote), although I guess any studies anywhere in the world sometimes are. Differences not only between various universities, but also between studying various subjects at the same university can be significant. Many things he brings up do seem familiar nevertheless, and it is interesting to hear a more “merciless” foreign perspective on these problems. I certainly agree with his plea at the end that a systemic change towards more “grassroots” organization of universities would significantly improve things around here:

To have thousands of students, the “future elite” as they’re often called, and not listen to their ideas would be my definition of insanity. Not everybody has ideas, not every idea is a good one, but not using the potential is simply stupid. Instead of a centralized bureaucracy, Faculty of Finance, University of Cologne and Germany as a whole should take serious steps towards a bottom-up approach. Maybe then, one day, University of Cologne will be the engine of enlightenment I hoped it would be.

In the spirit of fairness and completeness, I should also mention that there is a written response by the University of Cologne which claims that they have already planned steps to address some problems mentioned in the “Zeit” piece, some of which are going to be implemented next semester, and also want to remind us of both their limited funds to institute such changes and the fact that they offer an education without tuition fees.

Finally, here is a panda in a rocking chair: