German unification in 1990 ushered in an educational reform program aimed largely at superimposing the West German system of higher education over the eastern system.
Some of the changes included updating technical standards, increasing enrollments and downsizing faculty and staff in East German institutions.
In addition, many of the traditional academies (Fachschulen) were shut down and polytechnics (Fachhochschulen) established in their place.
As the century grew to a close however, attention shifted to the shortcomings of the (former) West German system.
The ensuing critical dialogue revolved around a number of issues but mostly focused on the duration of study programs, introduction of tuition fees and internationalization of German higher education. Several reform measures were implemented as a result of these debates.
At present, the majority of German universities are participating in the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), a large-scale pilot program, which is part of the European Union-mobility program ERASMUS (the European Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students).
The federal government also promulgated a new higher education framework law in 1998, which — among other things — lifted the ban on tuition fees.
Not surprisingly, the move has generated considerable controversy in many circles within Germany where education has always been paid for by the state.
Although most universities support the new law, they have stopped short of charging fees for fear that state governments may further intensify budgetary cutbacks in education initially engendered by the immense costs of unification.
Hence, it is not yet clear precisely when these fees will be introduced.
Federal and state governments are also trying to eliminate the homogeneous character of the higher education system by actively encouraging competition among individual institutions.
In addition, budgetary cutbacks in education have compelled universities to consider alternative means of funding themselves (e.g. charging tuition). As a result, they are gaining greater autonomy in areas such as strategic planning and administrative policies.
Another issue being discussed is greater internationalization in Germany’s higher education system. Critics have long decried the inattentiveness of the country’s universities to the needs of foreign students, the lengthy duration of degree programs and the incompatibility of German degrees internationally.
More recently they have pointed to the precipitous drop in the number of foreign applicants from Asia-Pacific and Latin America. The concern here is that foreign students, who often go on to become business and political leaders in their home countries, will go elsewhere to study if German universities can’t provide them with what they’re looking for.
In the long-term this will serve to diminish opportunities for German foreign investments and exports.
Germany has introduced two new internationally recognized degrees, the bakkalaureus (bachelor’s) and the magister (master’s), to:
- Enhance the international compatibility of German qualifications.
- Increase student mobility.
- Make the country’s study programs more attractive to foreign students.
Many of the new degree programs, still in the experimental stages, are being offered in English.
Below we have outlined the traditional degree structure, which has not been abolished, and the two new academic qualifications introduced in line with the Bologna Declaration .
Stage I: The fachhochschulen (polytechnics) award the diplom (FH) in engineering, business administration and the social sciences after four years. Fachhochschulen are distinct from universities in that their programs have different entry requirements, shorter duration periods and are more practically oriented.
Stages I and II: Students who enter universities can earn one of three types of qualifications: 1) the diplom degree awarded in science, engineering, economics and social sciences; 2) the magister artium (master of arts) in arts and humanities; 3) the staatsexamen (state examination) in fields regulated by the state (teaching, medicine and law). Although programs leading to these degrees require a minimum duration period of four to five years, most students take much longer graduate.
NOTE: The diplom, magister artium, and staatsexamen degrees incorporate both first and second levels of higher education. Holders of these diplomas have completed the second stage of university study.
Stage III: The final stage of higher education usually leads to the doktor (doctoral degree) and the habilitation (higher doctorate) awarded by universities. Admission to a doctoral degree program requires an above average grade in the final examinations for the diplom, magister or staatsexamen degrees. The time needed to earn a doctoral degree depends on the amount of work required to complete the dissertation, something which is agreed on between the student and his/her professor. Earning a doctorate requires writing a dissertation and the completion of an oral examination. There is no coursework for this degree in Germany.
New System (Reforms)
Two new degrees, the bakkalaureus and magister, have been introduced and will coexist alongside the traditional one-tiered system.
None of the old German qualifications will be abolished; the diplom, magister and staatsexamen will continue to serve as the standard final qualifications for German programs of study despite their incompatibility abroad. It has been left up to individual institutions to decide whether to offer the new qualifications alongside the traditional German degrees.
Because the old degree system is not being discarded (at least not for the moment), the German government is introducing a Diploma Supplement to enhance the international compatibility of these qualifications. The Diploma Supplement Deutschland follows the model developed by the European Commission , the Council of Europe  and UNESCO/CEPES .
Its purpose is to provide sufficient independent data to improve the international “transparency” and fair academic and professional recognition of qualifications (diplomas, degrees, certificates, etc.). The Diploma Supplement is designed to provide a description of the nature, level, context, content and status of the studies that were pursued and successfully completed by the individual named on the original qualification to which the supplement is appended.
In addition to lifting the ban on tuition fees, the German Higher Education Framework Act of 1998 also laid the groundwork for introducing a two-tiered system. The new law complies with the Bologna Declaration’s objective of dividing higher education into two clearly differentiated cycles: a first degree (undergraduate studies) and a second degree (graduate studies).
The bakkalaureus was introduced to meet the demands of the changing labor market. Duration requirements for the new bachelor’s programs are a minimum of three and a maximum of four years.
More than 600 new study programs (bachelor’s and master’s) have already been launched or are under preparation. In 1999/2000 there were 4,122 bakkalaureus students and 2,580 magister students, but the numbers are expected to increase dramatically in the next few years.
Despite the enthusiasm generated by the new two-tiered system, many university faculties have been slow to jump on the bandwagon, preferring instead to wait and watch for further developments.
It is not clear whether the introduction of internationally recognized degrees will altogether replace the traditional qualifications. However, the Association of Universities and Other Higher Education Institutions in Germany  (HRK) predicts that the new two-tier system will fully eclipse the old system within the next 15 years or so.
Until then however, the two systems will exist side by side, making the introduction of the diploma supplement extremely important.
The introduction of new degrees and new degree programs has created additional challenges for universities, particularly with regard to establishing quality assurance for both students and employers. Hence, a nationwide accreditation council, the Akkreditierungsrat , was set up in 1999.
The council’s primary task is to certify new agencies that will be accrediting the new bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. In certain cases, the Akkreditierungsrat itself may accredit degree programs.
The federal and state governments, along with the HRK, are ensuring that the emerging national system of quality assurance is in full compliance with the European Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education  (ENQA). Most of the country’s accrediting agencies are currently members of ENQA.
In addition to the establishment of a national accreditation council aimed at monitoring the new degree system, the German Science Council  (Der Wissenschaftsrat) is also calling for the accreditation of private institutions of higher education.
Both the federal and state governments have funded a number of pilot projects offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The response to these projects has been overwhelming, with the number of institutions wanting to participate in them far outstripping the number of available programs.
Further internationalization of German higher education is being facilitated through the reformulation of student visa requirements and work permits for study and research in Germany.
The introduction of more liberal policies regarding the maximum duration of stay, the pursuance of post-doctoral studies or internships and proof of sufficient financial means to fund one’s stay in Germany are all designed to make the country more attractive to foreign students.
Germany is also increasing the number of programs taught in English to facilitate the integration of international students into the German system of higher education.
To improve the linguistic preparedness of foreign applicants, a new Test of German as a Foreign Language  (TestDaF) is being introduced to assess language skills based on the requirements of individual study programs. The test is comparable to the internationally administered TOEFL  for English.
According to a survey conducted by the European Commission, German universities were already in 1996 participating in 135 integrated programs of study with other European institutions. In particular, Germany has been cooperating with France to establish a number of integrated study programs leading to a double degree and a jointly supervised doctoral degree.
These efforts culminated in the March 2000 founding of the Franco-German University  in Saarbrücken.
For further information about German higher education, please refer to the links listed below. Also, the online version of Studien- &Berufswahl  features an updated list of all German programs of study, and provides general information about higher education in the country.
Useful Links for Germany
- Accreditation Council  (Akkreditierungstrat)
- Association of Universities and Other Higher Education Institutions in Germany  (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz — HRK)
- Bund-Länder Commission for Educational Planning and Research Promotion 
- Studieren-in-Deutschland 
- The German Academic Exchange Service 
- The National Unions of Students in Europe 
- Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany  (Kultusministerkonferenz – KMK)
- Federal Ministry of Education and Research 
- “The Bologna Declaration on the European Higher Education Space: Follow-up Report on Developments in Germany “; Prepared jointly by the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and the Association of Universities and Other Higher Education Institutions in Germany; Nov. 24, 2000.
- Country Education Profiles: Germany; National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition; Australia, 1992.
- A Guide to Higher Education Systems and Qualifications in the European Community; Commission of the European Communities; The Netherlands, 1991.
- Kehm, Barbara; “German Higher Education at the Millennium”; International Higher Education; Center for International Higher Education; Boston College, Winter 1999.
- Landfried, Klaus “German Experiences in Higher Education Reform: The Two-Tier System of Degrees”; Presented at the International Seminar The Bologna Declaration and the Greek Approach; Athens, Jan. 19, 2001.