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Scramble for best students begins

GERMANY. Strong and weak undergraduates have been shared out between universities - until now. Yojana Sharma reports

Students applying to university face a radical shake-up of the admissions system.

The country's 16 state education ministers have agreed that admissions tutors will be able to ask students for higher marks in specific subjects, set minimum grades, hold entrance exams and interview applicants.

The changes will force universities to vie for the top students - like their British counterparts - and could lead to the creation of a superleague of popular universities able to attract more performance-related government-spending.

At present only a about a quarter of applicants for popular courses are selected. The rest are centrally allocated places by a computerised system.

But from next year universities will be able to select up to half their intake.

Currently, a university that has a place cannot refuse someone with the Abitur school-leaving exam. Most students get into their preferred institution within a year, even with low grades. Strong and weak students are also distributed equitably among universities, preserving the notion that they are all equal. A student with low grades, for instance, can eventually enrol in medicine after waiting four to five years.

Dr Dominic Orr, of the government-funded higher education information services in Hanover, said: "The Abitur gives you the right to study whatever you like. Unlike A-levels, the Abitur is not a subject-specific preparation for the universities. This can be a disadvantage for the universities."

The existing system has led to an embarrassingly high drop-out rate of 27 per cent.

Ministers recognise they need to allow universities to use better ways to pick out applicants with the right ability and motivation, even though this may lead to a British-style hierarchy of institutions and courses.

The introduction of entry tests could reduce the importance of the Abitur, currently the main measure of academic ability. For popular subjects such as medicine and law the Abitur mark determines who gets to the head of the queue.

However, a student who is outstanding in a particular subject can miss out on a place because of a poor Abitur average. This particularly affects school-leavers with a strong bias towards sciences, and immigrant children.

Both groups may perform less well in German and English, which are compulsory. Students study up to five subjects for the Abitur, usually including two at advanced level.

Research has shown that, in some states, foreign-born pupils outperform classmates, particularly in sciences. But many fail to get into popular courses such as medicine because of poorer results in German. The new system will benefit such pupils.

Universities which select half their students will still take the other half through central allocation - 25 per cent according to Abitur average mark and 25 per cent according to university preference and time on the waiting list.

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