GERMANY: New semester plans spark debate

Germany's semester structure in higher education has been under review for some time now, the magic word once again being the Bologna process. A new structure, it is widely felt, could bring the system more into line with other European countries and facilitate student mobility. Critics claim, however, that no uniform international structure of semesters or trimesters exists anyway and they point to difficult obstacles that across-the-board reform would confront.

As a rule, the summer semester at universities starts on 1 April ending on 30 September while the winter semester lasts from 1 October till 31 March. The practice-oriented Fachhochschulen have a somewhat different structure.

Actual university lecture periods are much shorter though, so activities are really only in progress from mid-October to mid-February, and mid-April to mid-July. The breaks, amounting to five months in all, are supposed to be there for practicals, examinations and special courses, although this is the time when many students have to earn money to cover at least part of their living costs.

One bold attempt to shift the beginning of semesters has already been made by Mannheim University and it seems to have met with success. As early as 2006, Mannheim brought the beginning of the winter semester forward to the beginning of September, and correspondingly changed the time of the summer semester, resulting in what is now referred to as an autumn and a spring semester.

Teaching is from September to December and from February to June. The institution's Rector, Hans-Wolfgang Arndt, claims that lecture periods are now in harmony with international practice. Arndt says the measure has gone down well with other European higher education institutions.

Situated in Baden-Württemberg, Mannheim was able to take advantage of the Land's new higher education act, which leaves it up to institutions to choose their semester timing.
Germany's Rectors' Conference (HRK) also showed an interest in Mannheim's move. Rectors meeting last November proposed the start of the summer semester be brought forward to March throughout Germany, with lectures commencing on the first Monday of that month, and the winter semester being shifted correspondingly.

The new "spring" and "autumn" semesters, the HRK argued, would enhance student mobility in Europe while also providing for better coordination between universities and the Fachhochschulen. But a final decision on the matter will not be taken before 2010.

While several institutions welcomed the proposal, stressing that Germany is the only country in Europe with such late semesters, there are also objections. For instance, Constance University rector Gerhart von Graevenitz maintains the old regulations fit in well with the schedules of visiting professors from the US who do not have to take leave from their home universities to come to Germany.

A rather weightier case was recently presented by Professor Winfried Müller of Dresden Technical University, who specialises in education and university history. Müller argues there is no international standard for the structure of the academic year in the first place.
Moreover, having the beginning of the lecture-free period coincide with school holidays would make it far more difficult to find places for practical training, especially in teacher training courses.

More generally, there is the issue of coordinating new structures with the different school holiday timetables in the 16 different Länder. The start of the school summer break is staggered among the Länder - also to avoid at least some of the motorway mayhem resulting if all of Germany were on the road at once.

One problem, for example, is that Bavaria issues its school leaving certificates very late, giving students little time to select and enrol for courses under the prospective new regulations.

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