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ANOTHER COUNTRY

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6. As Berlin's universities reach crisis point, Helen Pidd describes her German educational experience.

To your everyday undergraduate Brit, university in Germany sounds like the ultimate higher education dream. For the sometime slacker, periodically panicking over the doom of impending deadlines, the promise of a life without tuition fees and compulsory end of year exams is pure academic nirvana. Especially with no danger of ever being kicked out for not handing in work on time and next to no pressure from on high to finish a degree within an allotted time period. Parachuting into Berlin last October as an exchange student from Edinburgh, first impressions confounded all myths of Teutonic precision.

Well-versed in the glossy, globalised ways of a united Europe, like a sheltered 19th-century colonial I naively expected things to work pretty much the way they did back home. Choose courses, get timetable, write essays, take exams, finish the year, move on to the next: that kind of thing. How different could academia be, a mere two-hour plane-hop away? Totally and utterly, of course. For starters, in the three to four years it takes a British student to earn their letters, your average Berlin scholar is invariably only halfway through their studies. My poor chum Sebastian seems to have been at it forever. Thanks to extended bouts of impressively Proustian procrastination and frantic subject changing, after three long years he is bewilderingly still in his first semester.

Before the head-shaking begins, it is worth pointing out the umpteen reasons for such a mammoth fresher-to-graduate gestation period. Getting a degree at any of Berlin's three universities simply takes longer than in the UK, however hard you cram. More courses have to be attended, more exams taken and more essays written.

The difference is that in Germany there is no financial or institutional pressure to finish a degree within a certain period of time. Despite sporadic threats from the government, Berlin's 120,000 students still pay no tuition fees. Matriculation carries an administrative fee of 150 euros (£111) per semester, which entitles students to free travel on all public transport in the city. It's quite a bargain. For sightseeing alone it's worth enrolling, particularly when you consider that some courses don't carry specific entry requirements. (The Guardian, by Helen Pidd, June 17, 2003)

HARD LESSONS

7. Overseas students flock to UK universities to do research, but many are unhappy with the treatment they get.

"One year after starting my PhD, I had not had one formal meeting with my supervisor, only good 'general comments' about the progress of my project every three months when I asked for his signature to send to Mexico. When I finally had a meeting with my supervisor to define the scope of my project, in preparation for my transfer exam from an MPhil student to a PhD student, he 'suggested' that I change my project one year after starting, because it was on the 'border' of the interest of his group."

As a lecturer at a Mexican university, Francisco will have to pay back three to four years' salary unless he obtains his doctorate by the end of September. As a PhD student in the UK, he would have welcomed the initiative now proposed for UK government-funded postgraduates.

The funding council's initiative will restrict government support for research students to those in departments with a 70% completion rate and which deliver regular supervision by a team of trained staff (including a main supervisor with a successful record), keep records of all supervisory meetings, and include an independent assessor in progress reviews.

With the prime minister's encouragement, universities have been tapping into the international market and half of all research students in the UK now come from overseas. Their academic and financial contributions are essential to many research teams, particularly in applied science. But, although many of these students will be investing £200,000 in their PhD, it is not yet proposed that the UK quality threshold should apply to them. (The Guardian, by John Wdkeford, September 9, 2003)

DOCTORING THE REPORT CARD?

8.Some schools have switched to high-tech, tamper-resistant paper or online grade books to prevent the forging of grades and transcripts. (The New York Times, by Courtney C. Radsh, March 2, 2005)


 


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