Germany's academic nirvana

Gleaming spires with no tuition fees, small classes,friendly tutors and well-stocked libraries;studying in Germany is the ultimate higher education dream for HELEN PIDD. 

TO ME, your everyday undergraduate Briton, university in Germany sounds like the ultimate higher education dream. For the sometime slacker, periodically panicking over the doom of impending deadlines, the promise of a life without tuition fees and compulsory end of year exams is pure academic nirvana. Especially with no danger of ever being kicked out for not handing in work on time and next to no pressure from on high to finish a degree within the allotted time. 

Parachuting into Berlin last October as an exchange student from Edinburgh, Scotland, first impressions confounded all myths of Teutonic precision. Well-versed in the glossy, globalised ways of a united Europe, like a sheltered 19th-century colonial I naively expected things to work pretty much the way they did back home. Choose courses, get timetable, write essays, take exams, finish the year, move on to the next: that kind of thing. How different could academia be, a mere two-hour plane-hop away? 

Totally and utterly, of course. To begin with, in the three to four years it takes a British student to earn their letters, the average Berlin scholar is invariably only halfway through their studies. My poor chum Sebastian seems to have been at it forever. Thanks to extended bouts of impressively Proustian procrastination and frantic subject changing, after three long years he is bewilderingly still in his first semester. 

Before the head-shaking begins, it is worth pointing out the umpteen reasons for such a mammoth fresher-to-graduate gestation period. Getting a degree at any of Berlin's three universities simply takes longer than in the UK, however hard you cram. More courses have to be attended, more exams taken and more essays written. 

No pressure 

In Germany there is no financial or institutional pressure to finish a degree within a certain time. Despite sporadic threats from the government, Berlin's 120,000 students still pay no tuition fees. Matriculation carries an administrative fee of 150 euros per semester, which entitles students to free travel on all public transport in the city. It's quite a bargain. For sight-seeing alone it's worth enrolling, particularly when you consider that some courses don't carry specific entry requirements. Change, alas, is afoot. Some 200 million euros of educational budget cuts are scheduled to be phased in over the next four years. Even worse for academic tourists, a chronic cash crisis at the Humboldt has seen the powers that be take the drastic step of not admitting any new students as of the next academic year. The Freie Universitat and the Technische Universitat are expected to take similar measures, but in the meantime have decided to limit their intake to the very top percentage of applicants. 

ACADEMIC FREEDOM: In Germany there is no financial or institutional pressure to finish a degree within a certain time.

Various half-hearted attempts are currently being made to encourage and enable students to complete their courses within nine semesters, but for now, the eternal students of Berlin meander through the education system in their own snail-like way. 

As cultural stereotyping goes, Germany might well be notorious for its clockwatching ways, though such uber-efficiency has yet to materialise in the classroom. Used to old-school British fastidiousness, where a noon deadline means exactly that, and handing in a Pro Plus-inspired missive at five past is likely to result in a big fat zero, it's a shock to hear Herr Professor Doktor Irgendwas mouth a nonchalant: “Oh, hand it in at the end of February some time, or the beginning of April if things are looking a bit tight.” 

Taking eternity to graduate 

I spent many a happy hour smugly mocking one classmate for major foot-dragging over an epic essay on the work of philosopher Vilem Flusser, only to be regaled with the true tale of a colleague handing in a project an entire year late, and getting it marked. Is it any wonder it takes an eternity to graduate? 

Jochen is in his sixth year of a journalism degree over in the leafy suburbs of West Berlin at the Freie Universitat. Having gone straight there after completing his compulsory civil service stint, he is only now, aged 26, nearing the end of his studies. Sadly, having miscalculated the number of courses he needed to take, the little lamb found himself caught short when registering for his exams earlier this year. 

Such mistakes are common. All too often it seems nobody fully knows quite what is actually going on. The confusion lies, to a certain degree, in the absence of a proper pastoral system. At Edinburgh, each student is assigned a director of studies (DoS) to point the naive and the needy in the right direction. There is no such luxury in Berlin. German students are expected to put together their own timetable for each semester and ensure that they fulfil all requirements. There are no syllabuses in the British sense. 

My Edinburgh DoS is Dr Webster: Bill. He calls me Helen. We have a friendly, informal relationship. To most of my tutors in Berlin I am “Frau Pidd”, a title that makes me feel very elderly indeed. There is a definite distance here between students and teaching staff, although with overcrowding forcing tutorial groups into three-figure numbers, it is unsurprising that things tend not to get cosy. 

So inexpensive’ 

When I go back to Edinburgh for my final year in October, I will be one of three lonely students studying straight honours German (plus 17 taking German as part of their degree). While these numbers are apparently the smallest in the department's living memory, they are not too unrepresentative of the norm.  

Meanwhile, one of my classes at the Humboldt is regularly so full that we cannot close the door. Although I often end up squashing closer to fellow students here than I would on a second date, it is, paradoxically, quite difficult to get to know people at university in Berlin. This is partially because of the German disdain for small talk, but mostly due to the lack of student-run organisations.  

Here, there is no student union as the British would understand it, no real student newspaper, no societies. No freshers week, even. The only thing that seems really to unite students is a shared passion for smoking sulkily indoors, the undergraduate equivalent of behind the bike sheds. 

Thing is, it's quite refreshing not being part of a student ghetto. At Edinburgh, whether you like it or not, you are part of a visible student community, so it's rather nice to feel like a “normal” citizen for a while. Everything is so inexpensive in Berlin (my rent in Berlin is cheaper –more than £100 month cheaper –than Edinburgh) that there is no need to reveal my student status by asking for discounts wherever I go. 

Yes, the first few weeks here were a bit miserable. Accustomed to Edinburgh's mollycoddling ways, it was difficult suddenly having to make all my own decisions. But I soon got the hang of it. Now entering my final month in Berlin, it is impossible to decide which university is best. Sometimes it's a case of the grass is always greener, but, oh, for the luxury of higher education pick and mix. Imagine: Gleaming spires with no tuition fees, small classes, friendly tutors and well-stocked libraries, in a European city awash with world-class nightlife, half-decent weather and free public transport. The ultimate educational dream. – Guardian Newspapers Ltd 

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