Germany’s educational reputation is perhaps the best in the world after the US and UK. The snag is that all international students must pass stringent German language tests to study at most good universities in Germany. This has lead to the bizarre contradiction that the country is among the most popular destinations for exchange students, but one of the least popular for full degree-taking students.
If you can speak German, the country offers a great range of educational possibilities, from big, modern cities to quaint, fairytale villages and everything in between. Even if you can’t, there are a range of one-off degrees offered in English throughout the country, and a handful of alternative or international institutions that teach entirely in English (see ECLA and Jacobs). As in Holland, there’s also the option of attending one of the Universities of Applied Science, which are more practice/profession-oriented, but often do a range of courses in English.
German education has the big advantage of being *mostly* free. A year or two ago a government attempt to charge about €600 per year was largely thwarted, though it was adopted in some states. Continuing student protests have caused some of these states to repeal the charge, and others look likely to follow suit. There is fierce debate in the country and beyond about whether the lack of fees is causing universities to deteriorate, but whether it is or not, the current offer looks pretty tempting to a Brit facing a £9000 alternative.
In some cases, going to a university that does require the (smallish) tuition fee can come with advantages – such as better funding for student groups and, in a few cases, free access to public transport. Be warned that even where there are no tuition fees, you will likely be asked to make a (obligatory) semester contribution to your studies – this will set you back a few hundred euros, depending on the university.
Little financial aid is available (at least not from a central government source) to help cope with the costs of living, which are considerable though not terrible by European standards (especially not in Berlin). There is a huge range of scholarships of every variety available – make sure to find out which ones are applicable to you. DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service, see below) has a good database of scholarships, though there may be others specific to the unis you’re applying to.
German universities are oversubscribed. Since 1980, the number of students has increased by 100%, while the number of professors has only risen by 25%. Most now operate a numerus clausus policy for admission, making things quite competitive for German students. For Brits, however, getting into German universities is largely a matter of having good (or even just decent) A Levels. As with most countries, being an international applicant is an advantage, and as long as you can speak German you’ll probably be admitted to even the best universities. Some, however, have admissions tests, especially for courses such as law and medicine. Numerus clausus may continue to affect you once you’re in a university, as the most popular courses are frequently reserved for the students with the best grades, rewarding those who do well in first or second year exams.
Studies in Germany have a few oddities. Firstly there’s the business of cum tempore/sine tempore (abbreviated c.t. and s.t.). The latter indicates a normally scheduled class or lecture, while the former indicates that the class will start 15 minutes later than advertised. Don’t ask why they have this system. Moreover, it is common for universities to have a policy of Anwesenheitspflicht - yes, this is a real German word: it means mandatory attendance, even for large lectures. Depending on the strictness of the professor, you could get barred from the final exam for missing just one or two lectures without advanced notice.
And, obviously, do not be late. They are Germans after all.
German universities are excessively democratic, and you’ll find yourself ceaselessly pestered to vote in hundreds of little, chaotic elections of every kind. On the bright side, this means you get to help shape your educational environment. In some ways, the elections are part of the overall bureaucracy that Germans love even more than Brits. If you enjoy filling out a good form, you won’t do better than Germany.
One of the groups you’ll be voting for is the Studentenwerk, i.e. the student union. This is a helpful group in many respects – not least for finding accommodation, as it often runs a few dorm blocks that you might be lucky enough to get a room in. If not, it might also help you flat-hunt elsewhere.
Until recently, all German students had to do a year of military or community service before being able to go to university. Gap years of some sort remain very common in Germany, and don’t be surprised if everyone is older than you if you start age 18.
In Germany, students knock on their tables by way of applause at the end of a lecture instead of clapping or awkwardly remaining silent, as is the traditional British way. Don’t be frightened when this happens!
www.study-in.de is the site for all things to do with studying in Germany.