Court overturns university admissions restrictions regime

According to a recent Federal Constitutional Court ruling, the procedure for allocating places to study medicine in Germany is unfair. The court calls on federal and state governments to establish new procedures.

Disputes over the so-called numerus clausus system, regulating admissions to university programmes via applicants’ average mark in the Abitur – the German general certificate of higher secondary school education – started in the late 1960s. Student unions insisted on the word 'general' being taken seriously and medicine courses being open to all Abitur holders.

However, admissions restrictions have been introduced again and again in subjects where the number of applicants exceeds university capacities. Admissions restrictions apply throughout Germany for medicine, veterinary medicine and dentistry. Applications are submitted to the Central Office for the Allocation of Study Places in Dortmund.

Today, allocation to places in medicine programmes comprises 20% being awarded to students with the best Abitur marks, a further 20% according to how long applicants have been waiting and the rest depending on criteria set by individual universities. In its December ruling, the Federal Constitutional Court argued that at least in parts, present practice was unconstitutional.

The court judges argued that it clashes with the basic right to equal access to study programmes at public-funded universities resulting from the free choice of education, training and profession guaranteed by the Constitution’s Article 12 and the general principle of equality enshrined in Article 3.

They called for a range of changes in all three of the above procedures, and legislators at federal and state level are now expected to come up with an amendment of the present laws, or turn respective regulations into new laws, by 31 December 2019. Access to studying, they say, is too important an issue for admissions to be governed by regulations without a proper legal status.

However, determining the actual number of places to study is up to the “democratically legitimised legislator”, the court stressed. The right to equality in being admitted to programmes can only apply in the framework of the actually available study places. At the moment, there are five times as many applicants for medicine programmes as there are places to study.

The judges also ruled that limiting preference for locations to six universities in the first category of eligibility (Abitur marks) was unconstitutional, arguing it amounted to “the odds of Abitur holders obtaining a place to study first of all depending on their desired locations, and only secondly on their aptitude for the study programme”.

Michael Gardner Email: