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Max: Education Systems

November 19, 2011

The most prominent differences between the USA and Germany, and the ones I encounter each day, are the differences in the styles of higher education. These are some of the more general differences I’ve noticed.

Many aspects of university study at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and, I think, in Germany in general are less formal or regulated than they are in the USA. For example, regular lecture and discussion attendance is not required for a course. Even registration in a course is not required to get credit for it; the only thing that matters is that the student passes the single exam at the end of the semester.

I realize that class attendance is not strictly mandatory in most universities in the US, but the homework and midterm exams given in discussions and lectures often counts for a significant portion of a student’s final course grade along with the final exam grade (at least at the U of M). This is not the case at TUM; the final exam grade is the final course grade. Professors do assign homework for classes, but since this is not factored into the course grade it’s also technically optional. The tutors who run the discussion sections only give mild admonishments to students who don’t turn in their homework (which is often most of the class).

As is the case with many good things, I didn’t realize how helpful a midterm exam or regular graded homework was to my academic performance until I didn’t have either anymore. Homework and midterms served as a useful academic barometer for my current level of understanding of the course material. With the homework I’m getting at TUM I’m never sure whether the problems are really the type I’ll see on the exam (Physics students who have had to contend with WebAssign might know what I mean). They also provided a good incentive to keep up with the course material. I find regular assignments and exams a much better motivator to study than the distant, vague threat of an exam on the horizon.

Academic issues aside, I’ve also seen differences in campus organization that reflect a more independent attitude in student life. The standard US college campus with its clusters of academic buildings close to student housing and, in the case of city campuses, local restaurants and businesses is nowhere to be found in Munich. The main student housing is fifteen minutes away by train from either of the TUM main campuses and one of the campuses lacks any independent local restaurants or businesses in the immediate vincinity. The phenomenon of US college sports, including the ubiquitous campus mascot and a feeling of campus identity, also seems to be absent here.

I’m sure many readers who have been to, or are currently attending, a college or university in the US remember the feeling of increased independence and self-reliance that comes with moving out of your parents’ home, taking classes you like, and being encouraged to independently investigate and study the course material instead of just memorizing facts. Many of the above differences can be summarized as an extension of this independence, whether for better or worse.

There’s a relevant current event I wanted to write about before it becomes old news: The Bildungsstreik (Educational Strike), which took place last Thursday, was a large, organized student protest on a whole variety of educational topics. The whole list of demands is here. Since the website behind the link is in German, I’ll summarize: It reads at first like a typical list of idealistic demands, asking for reduced tuition, better equality in education, more of a voice for students in educational politics, more money for education instead of military and banks, and… wait. Sorry, that first one should be no tuition. Also, free (as in “free beer”) transportation and food for all students.
Most American students would be pretty surprised by such demands. We’re used to paying ten to fifty thousand dollars per year for tuition, not including room and board. Even state-financed public institutions still rely heavily on tuition from students. However, things are a bit different in Europe. In many ways, the political systems here are much more heavily socialized than in the USA. Many countries have universal free health insurance (excluding Germany, which does have a “public option”), and, until recently, completely free education. Of course, anyone who has taken basic economics knows that there’s really no such thing as a free lunch; the money has to come from somewhere. In Europe, it comes from taxes much higher than what we’re used to in the USA. As an example, the average sales tax in the USA is somewhere around six percent. In Germany, it’s 19%.
This difference is really a choice enforced by custom. In Germany, students get to study for very little money; in exchange, they pay more taxes when they start earning income. In the USA students are faced with the full cost of their education, or a significant portion thereof, and may be forced to take up jobs, take out loans, or apply for scholarships to offset the short-term cost. When they graduate, however, they should have a larger portion of their incomes available to pay off whatever debts they may still have. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, the recent Eurozone crisis has illustrated the risks of such a large, complex, interconnected system. On the other hand, many American students are simply unable to pay for college, leaving them with crushing five-figure debts or an unfinished education. What I’m trying to illustrate is that no one system is inherently better than another; they just work differently.
On a side note, in case you’re wondering how much exactly this tuition is that Munich’s students marched against: It’s 542 euros per semester. For an American student, that’s peanuts. That’s why, despite all my best attempts to understand the European system, I still can’t support a movement that wants to free students from paying this sum, barely more than two months’ rent in Munich’s cheapest apartments, when there are American colleges demanding fifty times this amount per semester from their students.
For all the idealistic demands made by the Bildungsstreik movement, there are some realistic concerns about trends in the educational system I’ve noticed myself. There are other important ways in which the German system is more strictly regulated, infringing on the student’s independence in some pretty concerning (in my opinion) ways. At TUM, students have very little choice when it comes to their selection of courses in the first few years of their study. Physics students, for example, are given a schedule which describes the courses they will take for the first two years of their study. The only degree of freedom in this schedule is the selection of two electives to fulfill a type of “liberal education requirement” (e.g. a course on technology and society) to ensure students aren’t just taking physics courses. Relatedly, it seems very hard — if not impossible — to double major at TUM, a relatively common practice at the U of M. Switching majors seems just as difficult at TUM; at the U of M, students don’t formally decide on a major until their second or third year.
The reason I called these characteristics concerning is that they seem to be aimed at the standardization of higher education at the expense of student independence. To be clear, I’m not against standardization of certain aspects of higher education, such as the credit system to ease the process of transferring between schools. There are, however, ways in which standardization can do more harm than good, at least from the perspective of an American student.
Students at the U of M, at least in the majors I’ve looked at, are given significant freedoms in choosing courses to fulfill the requirements of their individual majors. Students can choose courses because they’re interested in them, not just because the courses are required. Because of this, an education can be an extremely intellectually stimulating experience where students are allowed to explore their interests in a field and, if they don’t like it, switch to another one. Of course, some majors, most notably engineering fields, have a reduced degree of freedom, but several of the course decisions are still left up to the student, and double majoring is (in theory) still possible. With the rigid, standardized German model, in which students are expected to complete their bachelor’s degree in three years instead of four, much of this freedom gets lost, turning education into more of a long chore instead of the experience of a lifetime.
For further information on this standardization process, which is being implemented throughout Europe, I would suggest you research the Bologna Process. The Wikipedia article is informative but, as always, I would be wary of uncited “facts.”
I think this will be my last treatise comparing the educational systems in the USA and Germany but I may have a few interesting anecdotes to share now and then. Besides that, I’ll write about food in the two countries next week, because there are few other things that say more about a country’s culture in general than its attitudes towards food and eating.
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