Marked progress in students taking less time to graduate

A new survey by a German higher education think tank demonstrates that more students are obtaining degrees within a reasonable time than in the early years of the Bologna reforms.

Efforts to establish the Regelstudienzeit, a standard period of study, go back to the introduction of the Federal Framework Law on Higher Education in 1976. The basic idea was to require universities to create conditions enabling students to complete their studies within a reasonable period.

However, it was only with the introduction of the Bologna reforms in European higher education that study programmes in Germany underwent a gradual overhaul. Many of the old Diplom and Magister degree programmes were turned into Bachelor and Masters programmes to fit into a new format providing more compatibility across Europe.

The Centre for Higher Education, a think tank based in Gütersloh that examines developments in the university system and proposes concepts for policy reform, has now compared ranking results on the length of studying from 2003 to 2005 with new figures covering 2015 to 2017.

The statistics suggest that a greater share of students are obtaining their degrees within a reasonable period, and that it is more feasible for them to complete their studies within the Regelstudienzeit than it was 15 years ago.

Improvements are most marked at traditional universities, and here, mathematics, education science and civil and environmental engineering departments have made the most progress.

The share of departments in which more than 80% of students graduated within the Regelstudienzeit plus a margin of two semesters grew from 18% to 75% in mathematics and 19% to 53% in education science, whereas the figures for civil and environmental engineering rose from 0% to 29%.

In both groups of subjects, only a few departments belong to the bottom group in which, at best, every second student graduates within the Regelstudienzeit plus two semesters margin.

In informatics, the bottom group had comprised three quarters of all programmes run by universities in the 2003 to 2005 survey, whereas now just 17% of all departments in this subject belong to it.

Developments among the Fachhochschulen, the universities of applied sciences, were less conspicuous in the study. These institutions are based on a concept that has always featured relatively short, practice-oriented courses that bear closer resemblance to bachelor programmes.

“Although keeping within the timeframe prescribed for a programme also depends on the prerequisites of individuals, the framework provided for a programme in terms of clear organisational structures, small group sizes and a manageable study concept is crucial,” says Sonja Berghoff, senior expert for empirical methods at the Centre for Higher Education.

“Much of this has traditionally been a focal theme of the Fachhochschulen. But in the course of the Bologna reforms, universities also concentrated more and more on these aspects, and in some subject areas, they have obviously been given more in-depth attention.”

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