Back at Uni – Some Differences between Germany and the UK

It has been a while since I have posted my last article – due to the fact that I have an awful lot to do: Seminars, coursework, and two jobs. After a few weeks of leisure, time became once more an extremely valuable commodity. Two months have passed since I am back at my alma mater in Münster, the Westfälische Wilhelms-University. Though I had been gone for only a little more than a year, it felt a bit strange to sit in a German class after my time in England. I immediately realised many difference, which can be identified on various levels: Assignments, Deadlines, the relationship between tutors and students, the mentality -or to put it differently- the “spirit” of my fellow students, library, teaching – almost every aspect in everyday life at uni varies in comparison to the UK. As I had the opportunity to study in both systems, I would like to digest briefly the most striking characteristics and variations in both the British and German higher educational system. However, I want to emphasize that these experiences are purely subjective and base exclusively on what I have seen in Coventry and Münster. Moreover, not only readers from overseas might be unfamiliar with my German”Magister”-degree. Since it has been scrapped a couple of years ago, only very few students who started to study in 2005/2006 are  studying this dwindling degree. Hence, many younger German students, who started with the  international BA/MA-program might do not know anything about it, too. So to say, I compare not only two different national education systems but also generations of academic degrees.

Thus, here a brief explanation of the “Magister-degree”: It has been the traditional degree for students in the humanities and social sciences at most German universities until 2006/2007 (experts for the so-called “Bologna-process” are welcome to correct me, if I am wrong). Depending on where you have applied for it, you choose to study two or three subjects – of which one is the major one. Normally, it takes four and a half years to finish the “course”. However, most students need a bit longer than that, due to side jobs, internships, semesters abroad etc. During your studies, you have to organize almost everything on your own – there are no fixed term schedules or the like. After collecting all the “course-certificates” you need, you apply for the final examinations. They can be divided into two major forms of assessment: 1. The final dissertation, which should have between 80 and 120 pages, i.e.  approximately 30.000 to 45.000 words. You have to write it within the context of your main subject. 2. Additionally, there are three final oral examinations: one in the main subject (45 minutes), and  two in each of the minor subjects (30 minutes). There is no BA in between; you finish with a “postgraduate” degree directly. Hence, the Magister and the Master can be regarded as equivalent degrees. I am quite lucky to have both by the end of next year, as I am very close to finish my “Magister-program” – this winter term I will receive the last certificates, and in June I will hand in my final dissertation in communication science. My two minor subjects are English and History.

So there are a lot of differences rooted in the basic structure of both degree-programs:

1. The composition of the term schedule: Before the semester started, I had to choose  all the courses I wanted to do from a very broad range of seminars. This has certain advantages: You can visit courses on partly very special issues and write essays on topics of your personal interest. Moreover, it allows you to create a schedule which fits your individual capacities. However, the last point can become quickly a handicap, too: Some courses you really need to do might overlap – so you have to choose and skip one for the next term; or you get lazy and postpone one or two courses to the next semester. In both cases you might overstep the recommended time frame for finishing your degree. This does not mean that you get in any way “punished” by the university’s administration – actually, the uni does not really care how long you need to finish your studies. But it is not  really supportive for your future career if it took you too long, especially without any reasonable explanation. It can pretty much diminish your chances on the job market. Besides, it is quite expansive, too, since you have to pay fees each semester. In the UK, the fixed structure prevents in most cases that a student needs longer than the estimated amount of time for his/her studies – along with the enormous costs. Nevertheless, this implies a certain inflexibility, which also delimits the chances to create an individualized academic development. Today, almost all German universities applied a similar system (as I said, I am one of the very last Magister students).

2. Focus vs. Plurality: In my British master-course I studied one subject only – Communication, Culture and Media (an interdisciplinary one, though). Therefore, I had enough space to focus completely on that specific branch of science. At least theoretically, this ensures that each student becomes a true expert of his/her field of study. However, it can also become quite boring and put certain limits to an individual’s horizon. In Germany, I study three subjects: Communication sciences, English, and history. I could have chosen quite different disciplines as well, such as sociology, psychology, political sciences, any  language, cultural studies etc. etc. Each Magister-student could create a very specialized combination of academic expertise by choosing from the whole range of subjects in the humanities. This allowed students to go their very own way through university and to get a pluralistic yet specialized stock of knowledge. For instance, take a look on some of my current seminars:

– “English in Asia” (Varieties of English, forms of language usage, development and distribution etc.)

– “Foucault: Discourse-Power-History” (Discourse analysis, orientalism etc.)

– “European Communism” (History of Marxism/Communism)

– “Marriage and Gender in the Protestant Reformation” (History of gender in the 16th century)

These courses are very interesting and by choosing topics for essays related to the (contemporary) media in each class, I can draw a connection to my main focus of studies. Simultaneously I profit from  perspectives beyond my major subject of communication sciences. Each semester I attended seminars on quite unique topics. But there are also certain disadvantages: Sometimes you cannot attend all the seminars you’d like to and you have to deal with issues completely detached from you personal field of attention. Again, my current curriculum is a good example: Due to schedule problems/overlapping courses, I have to do classes on ancient Greece – just to get the certificates. Don’t get me wrong – the content is very interesting. But still, nothing I learn there has anything to do with my future career. Hence, there is a certain risk to “waste” time on stuff you will never get in touch with again. Moreover, students who are not able to organize their studies themselves effectively could get lost – some never “found” their focus.

There are far more differences and varieties, of which I will write about in another post. And of course, soon there will be articles on media related issues as well – after I have done some of my assignments.


Author: Dr. Dennis Nguyen

Media and Communications Researcher with particular interest in online media, transnational discourses, crisis communication, public sphere theory, and empirical methods.

4 thoughts on “Back at Uni – Some Differences between Germany and the UK”

  1. Very interesting! But first, let me say it is nice knowing you are back in school. Hope you are settling down well.

    It was fun reading your article, really. It has served as a pleasant distraction for the ‘boring’ work am doing right now.

    Actually, I have often wondered how different educational systems organize programmes in broadly similar subject areas in very different ways and still end up issuing the student with ‘equivalent’ degrees. Perhaps it has to do with the philosophies behind the systems of education. Perhaps it is something else.

    Personally however, I will happily side with systems like the “Magister”, since I do not really like programmes with fixed boundaries. Better more room to run around and discover yourself than a small space made to fit your body (of course you know i dont mean ‘body’!) whether you are slim or fat.

    If you can, please send me some materials or short bibliography on European communism and Protestant Reformation, with or without the focus on gender. Thanks and keep up the good work.


  2. Dennis, which of the systems would you say you prefer? If you could design your own system, what aspects of both will you put together to produce the best result?


  3. Thanks to all of you for your interest and comments – keeps me motivated to continue writing!

    @Suleiman: I will send you a list with some English resources on both topics – it’s always very interesting to see what society looked like in the past, in order to understand the current conditions and situation. Moreover, do you have gathered any experience in a non-european educational system? I’m quite curious about what life and work at uni looks like beyond Europe’s borders.

    @Tomi: I would definitely try to compose a new system, which benefits from both approaches. Both have their merits but also demerits – due to different traditions in education and the respective economic system. Moreover, the Magister is virtually “dead” – the last generation of students of this degree will finish within the next two years – by the latest (however, you still have good job chances with it, it’s not like you’re an relic from a far off past). So, please keep in mind: The following outline is purely hypothetical – a “thought experiment” in which the actual political and economic factors are not considered:

    Students should have the possibility to study at least one more subject besides their major subject – either a language, sociology, history, political sciences, you name it. Maybe this is already the case in undergraduate programs but it should be applied to postgraduate degrees as well.
    It gives students the opportunity to learn something beyond the limits of their main focus of studies. Simultaneously, they can specialize in a specific niche. For instance, I have a friend who would like to work as a journalist on Middle Eastern / Arabian issues – he studied therefore communication science, “islam science” and Arabic. Another girl wants to get hold of a job in PR, hence she chose communication science, public law, and commercial policy. In a globalized economy in which job specialization becomes increasingly important, this is a good way to “produce” experts. However, to avoid that student get lost in the ocean of choices, there should be certain guidelines – but not as strict as in a classical master’s program. I’m thinking about “meta-courses” or tutorials, in which tutors explain what students should take care of when planning their individual academic career.

    There should be much more plurality among the modules as well – faculties should give space for “exotic topics” and show more flexibility in their course offer. For example, during my studies in communication sciences I had seminars like “The Depiction of Death in the Media”, “The Communication of Humour”, “The Dissolution of Borders between Media Types”, or “The Cultivation of ‘Job Images’ through the Media”. Each seminar dealt with an unique topic but still imparted basic knowledge in the field of communication/media studies.

    These would be some influences I’d like to keep from the Magister – but this type of degree has also certain disadvantages. For instance, all the course marks a student has collected during his studies are of absolutely no importance for the final result. You write essays, you give oral examinations, and you receive normal marks for them – but in the end what only counts is “pass” or “fail”. The grades you get are simply an “implication” of your “capabilities”. Your final result consists of the marks for your final dissertation and the three oral examinations exclusively. Hence, it occurred that a student, who has been always good in his /her seminars but failed in the final examinations, received a bad overall mark; even if he/she received in the modules “A-marks” only, it does not influence in anyway the final result. So there’s strictly speaking no motivation to do your best in class – only the end counts. That’s something I’d like to keep from the international Master’s degree – that each module has an appropriate influence on your final result. This boosts your motivation to work hard additionally.

    Generally, I would like to have more courses taught in English. This would bring more students from overseas to German universities. Though there are a few foreign people, the vast majority of students is German (I’d say 90%+) – compared to Coventry, it’s pretty boring in this respect. Especially the field of communication sciences is generally focusing on the German speaking parts of the world. My institute is Germany’s leading one but it definitely fails if it comes to covering global issues. There are actually very few courses which focus on transnational/international topics. That’s something I liked in England. There were fewer limitations in terms of a “global perspective” and the chances to get in touch with people from all over the world are much higher – as we can see in this discussion 😉


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