Reasons Not to Study at a German Uni

lecture hall hörsaal students university class

It was not a mistake. I was just a little naïve.

Looking for chances to develop my character as well as my resume, I found a great international study program on my home university’s web page. I applied and got accepted. All the info I had was really promising, and that’s what I based my decision upon. Boy, have I ever been this disappointed. 

I did my Bachelor’s at Aalto University, Finland, and spent a semester abroad in Fudan University, China. Both institutions had their perks and quirks, but in general I had been happy about the education I’d gotten in each – challenging studies and easy studying, as it should be.

As you might imagine, when I moved to Germany to study for a Double Master’s Program in the University of Cologne, I was more than excited.

Having been in Cologne for almost a year now, I am willing to admit I love the city: the open atmosphere, the Karneval, the beautiful riverside, the salad buffet at the student cafeteria, the fact I can bike anywhere in ten minutes, grilling in the park on a warm day, buying beer at a kiosk after midnight, the people. Being a student, however, the largest part of my time here goes into studies. And in Cologne, it sucks balls.

Let me tell you why.

The stereotypical picture you might have about the Germany – of efficiency nearing perfection – might be true for your neighbor’s Audi, but it has nothing to do with the education here. The structures I’ve countered studying here are inefficient, bureaucratic, downright outdated and worst of all, untrustworthy. I’m not telling you this because I dislike the university or like whining – quite the opposite, I’m telling you this because I do care and I know it can be changed. By writing this to you, my friend, I’m putting you in charge of changing the system.

I’ll first offer a list of symptoms that reflect the sad state UoC – or, more specifically, the Faculty of Finance – is in, and to not be just a whiner, I’ll give my best at figuring out how to fix them. Also, I try to concentrate on the essentials, so instead of complaining about the windowless buildings and uncomfortable seats I’ll focus on institutional concerns. I also don’t care about academic rankings (Cologne actually ranks fairly well), but on things important to students.

Moreover, a fair disclaimer. I only speak of experience, and I have not attended every course the university has to offer, nor every university Germany has to offer. Besides, not every course I’ve attended is really that horrible – some are, but others would get a butterfly sticker for giving it a proper try (in the unnecessarily tight frames set by UoC authorities). As another disclaimer, even though I talk about the University, some critique really applies just to the finance courses. Bear with me.

1)     The Pedagogy – or the lack thereof

University of Cologne was founded in 1388, and also the pedagogy seems to stem from medieval times. In a normal course, I have lectures – i.e. listening to a monologue – and exercise sessions, which, also, consist solely of listening to a monologue, but this time you have to write everything down. Lose focus, and you lose two lines of an equation you won’t be solving alone. I really want to stress this one: you are copying your assistant’s handwritten notes, by hand, and then few months later trying to decipher the hieroglyphs. Worth a proper face palm, especially in 21stcentury, the internet age.

How about..?

Upload the solutions online – that way you would have time to discuss the exercises, and see if the students had trouble with them! As such, exercise sessions have no value beyond providing you with the right solutions. If your friend has a scanner, you have zero reason to attend.

2)     The Grading

I have taken 10 courses here, worth 6 ECTS each. The grading was based solely on exams, with two exceptions: the seminar preparing you for thesis work, and a course we were given a assignment worth up to 5% of the grade. No cases, no presentations, no essays, no assignments, no learning diaries, no learning groups, no pondering, no critique, no independent thinking or feedback whatsoever. In other words, no academic or personal development, just learning by heart over the frantic few days before the exam – only to forget everything the week after. Compare that to any university worth comparing to, and you’re not sure whether to laugh or to cry.

How about..?

As one of leading thinkers in science and education Lawrence Krauss put it: Testing always inevitably means you teach students to be able to do tests. That might have nothing to do with the problems students face ten years later, when the skills should be applied.

Do us a favor, and teach us.  Demand students to study during the semester by giving us homework. Promote understanding by making us write essays about the big picture. Make us learn the methods by giving us assignments, to try applying the theories in a case study. That way we’ll learn, and hopefully won’t forget everything the moment we start studying for the next exam. If you’re not sure how, then take a look at Yale, MIT, UCLA, or for a more moderately funded alternative, look at Aalto and Fudan.

3)     The Exams

Forgot to stretch your fingers before the exam? Uh-oh, you’re in for a lesson. Because in Cologne, taking exams is a race against time. You have 60 minutes time, and usually close to 20 questions. The aim is not to test your understanding of the matter, but simply see if you can wrestle a ridiculous amount of easy questions within limited time. In one exam I took here, I had to answer the same question five times (with different numbers), as if the second time around would test my relevant abilities in any useful way. If you make a mistake typing the numbers into your pocket calculator, you’re better off not correcting it, because you’ll probably get more points with the same time somewhere later on in the exam.

The exam type basically forces the students to learn the exercise answers by heart, giving no weight on understanding the matter. As if in working life we would have encountered every problem in advance, as if knowing a fact was more important than understanding a concept – especially in the internet age, where every fact can be checked within minutes, and concepts get more and more complicated.

How about..?

Test relevant stuff – test whether we understand the matter, give us a proper challenge! Just don’t make it artificially difficult by limiting the time to 60 minutes. In comparison, I want exams that last hours and really push my cognitive abilities to the limit – way more rewarding than a sprint in the form of overloaded high-school quiz. You might even promote deeper understanding instead of remembering single answers.

4)     The ID’s, cards and what-not’s

Bureaucracy, anyone? Well, have some: everybody has a student card, which is not a card. It’s a piece of paper you’re probably going to rip sometime during the six-month validity (and don’t laminate it, you’ll need the hologram). It has no picture on it, so you need you’re normal ID anytime you’re using your student “card”. Then there’s the card you use to pay at the student cafeteria. Then there’s one for library, and another one for printing at the said library. As you’re probably going to take an exam, you’ll need an exam ID, which is different from your student card – because you know, using your student card in exams puts you into risk of other people finding about your exam results, as if there was much to find out.

How about..?

Is there anything better than to save both money and nerves, simply by reducing useless bureaucracy? Have one student card that works everywhere. You could even connect it to your credit card, smart phone, or, the hell with it, your fingerprint!

To be fair, though, Cologne is fixing this issue next semester. The students here are getting the one-card-does-all solution.

5)     Prüfungsamt

Prüfungsamt is this bureau that manages the exams. They’re the people who schedule all your exams on the same week after Karneval, even on the same day, even though the exam period is over a month long. They’re the people that look you in the face and say “not my problem” when you’re looking for advice. They’re the people who demand you do everything by the exact date and time they deem fitting, and then miss all the deadlines they have. The Prüfungsamt’s refuses to use email, which perfectly embodies its attitude towards students. If we were back in China, I’d suppose the Party just wanted to employ more people but didn’t know what to do with them and so decided to add an extra block into the organization structure.

How about..?

Everything I said about saving money and nerves, applies. Just get rid of the whole Prüfungsamt. That’s how they roll elsewhere, and it works better. If nothing else, at least make them use email.

6)     Using technology

The UoC has several online systems to help the students in their studies. They’re a mess. If you know what you’re looking for, but don’t know where to find it, you never will. Especially if you’re not fluent in German, because clicking on a link on an English page usually directs you to a German one.

The faculty of finance clearly lacks all incentives to even look like it’s trying. That’s the only way I can explain the fact, that they require me to hand in a seminar paper on paper instead of a PDF, and even worse – all the referred articles on a CD – a goddamn compact disc! I mean, who even has computers that can read those things anymore? What next, a floppy disk?

How about..?

I like suggesting cheap solutions, but fixing the web services is going to cost. Oh boy. Just when you do, make sure to use some user feedback in the process. And translate the damn site. And about the CDs – if you don’t know the answer by August 2015, you shouldn’t be working in an institute of higher learning.

7)     Facilities

UoC has no 24/7 facilities, very little spaces for group work and practically no computers – which reflects both the outdated teaching methods and the disregard of students’ interests. The only workspace open on Sundays is the library, with facilities incapable of serving the whole university (which is not a small one). Also, power plugs are a rare commodity and snacks aren’t allowed. Damn right, those messy students don’t need their laptops anyway. Mind you, that when lectures end in July and people start their frantic studying for the exams, instead of providing additional work spaces, the university actually REDUCES the amount of available facilities.

How about..?

Remember the new student card I wrote about? How about using that as a key card for 24/7 access into some of the facilities? That’s the way it works elsewhere – with no additional costs.

8)     Disregard of Communication

Communication? There is none. Two weeks before the next semester starts, you don’t even know your grades from the previous one, nor which courses will be offered in the next – I got the last exam results from mid-February in May! Students are literally trying to interpret exam result charts from last year, in a desperate attempt to find out in which month they might have exams this year. Two key courses are suddenly removed from the semester, when the professor gets pregnant. My study program is officially in English, but suddenly one of the mandatory courses is offered only in German. I’m lucky enough to know the language, but may God have mercy upon those who aren’t.

How about..?

The first thing you have to do to improve communications, is to get your head out of your arse stop forgetting communications exist. Students need information. Please, tell us relevant information on time, it makes everybody’s life a bit easier. Pretty please.

The Implications

We are at the end of my rant. So far I have just listed symptoms, but I’m not over-confident enough to think that if we just changed these the way I suggest everything would turn into sunshine and candy bars. New problems would arise. My suggestions wouldn’t work. Fixed issues arise anew. Situations change. To tackle the cause instead of symptoms, there has to be a fundamental change in the way University of Cologne, or specifically, the Faculty of Finance functions as a system.

I’ll use my other home university as an example. To exaggerate a bit, there are good things and bad things about the university: the bad things tend to be the ones given from above, the good ones have usually been born somewhere in the organization, then tested and – if it turns out to be smart – implemented. This generates grassroots movements that spot problems and then aim to fix them.
To have thousands of students, the “future elite” as they’re often called, and not listen to their ideas would be my definition of insanity. Not everybody has ideas, not every idea is a good one, but not using the potential is simply stupid. Instead of a centralized bureaucracy, Faculty of Finance, University of Cologne and Germany as a whole should take serious steps towards a bottom-up approach.
Maybe then, one day, University of Cologne will be the engine of enlightenment I hoped it would be. Or if not, at least now you’ve been given a fair warning: sometimes studying in Germany is a pain in the ass.


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