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It seems like a good time to make an interim evaluation of the new two-tier bachelor and master’s degree system in Germany. At the beginning of next year, the first bachelor’s degree students will graduate from Furtwangen University of Applied Science in disciplines including bio- and process technology (BPT) and medical technology (MEB). What does the first generation of bachelor’s students think about their life sciences courses? Karin Bundschuh from the Freiburg BioRegion talked with the University’s academic dean, Professor Anton Karle, and some students.

Furtwangen University of Applied Science changed from Diplom to bachelor and master’s degree courses right at the very beginning. (Photo: Furtwangen University of Applied Science)

Furtwangen University was confronted with the government’s decision to drastically change the German higher education system very early on. The biotechnology course that is about to finish was the first course to lead to a bachelor’s degree. And the master’s course in Biomedical Engineering (BME) in Villingen-Schwenningen was set up as early as 2000. “Thanks to our know-how and skills, the Furtwangen and Albstadt-Sigmaringen Universities of Applied Science were asked to set up a pilot master’s course at a university of applied science,” recalls Karle.

New names alone are not enough

At that time, the two-tier concept was completely new. Nowadays, bachelor and master’s degree courses are less of a new idea. Nevertheless, no more life sciences master’s courses have been set up as yet at the Furtwangen and Albstadt-Sigmaringen Universities of Applied Science. Once the first bachelor’s students have graduated, then the universities will be able to assess the demand for master’s degree courses. The majority of students who started the new bachelor’s courses in the winter semester of 2005/2006 are about to do their bachelor’s degree thesis.

The Bologna agreements of 1999 have not only led to new names and designations, but also to other important changes at Furtwangen University of Applied Science. The University dropped the introductory practical semesters that students were required to do in a company because it was necessary to reduce study times. “In order not to lose the practical aspects of the courses, we have tried to integrate other practical periods into the curricula,” said Karle. But there are a number of people who have their doubts and think that there is not enough practical work in the new courses.

Many students regret the disappearance of the first practical semester

Although the prorector is convinced that the 5th semester, which replaces one of the original practical semesters, gives the students in-depth practical training, some students would like to have the second practical semester back. “The practical training helps us to gain a greater understanding of the theoretical aspects, but it no longer gives us an idea of what is required in the working world,” said one of the students interviewed. Another student clearly regrets that the first practical semester was dropped, as she felt it was an important tool for students to help in their career decisions. “It is now more difficult for us to decide on a possible future research area.”

Nowadays, students study for a period of three and a half instead of four years. Since the first practical semester was dropped, universities have had to reduce the curricula. Changes in how to teach the content and how the students reach their learning targets were also introduced. “Students have to do tests every semester and they are required to make a more active contribution to their studies than before,” said Karle. The preparation and revision of lectures and participation in tutorials has, in many cases, become obligatory. “We want to accompany students and support them, as well as pushing and challenging them,” said Karle. The different disciplines on a specific course have been harmonised to a greater degree than was previously the case and great care is put into teaching many topics on an interdisciplinary level.

High commitment and excellent supervision

For Karle, this is the only right way to go forward. However, he is still not completely happy with the situation because the government omitted to plan for more personnel and the extra financial resources that are needed to cope with the increased workload. The situation has improved slightly in the last year. “Study fees are a great help,” emphasised the prorector, adding that many professors and lecturers have always made a huge effort to support students as much as they can. “I have always felt that I have had excellent support,” said a student and another added that “we can contact the professors whenever we want and they will help us to clarify any questions we have”.

The bachelor’s degree students at Furtwangen University of Applied Science are very busy. They have precious little time to work and earn some money. “They have a very full timetable,” said Karle adding that some courses and course blocks are obligatory. Many of the courses require students to prepare for and revise lectures, write protocols, presentations, theses and tests. Students at Furtwangen University are required to dedicate about 900 hours per semester to their studies. “This requires students to work continuously and have excellent time management skills,” said a student adding that only very few students ever consider setting up a family and having children while they are doing their studies. “But we are working hard to change the conditions, in particular with regards to family and children,” said Karle who attaches great importance to this particular area.

Studying abroad is still not easy

The Bologna Process aims to harmonise and internationalise education. Furtwangen University seems to have achieved this, at least partially. The students agree that the university helps all those who want to do a practical semester abroad. A student who spent some time in Canada comments: “This was a very enriching experience.” But it took a lot of luck to get her there and she had a great deal of support from one of her professors. It seems that the contacts that lecturers and professors have are often key to students spending some time abroad. Many fellow students who had no professor or lecturer to help them, spent a lot of time applying and in the end were unsuccessful, recalled a young student.
Practical training of medical technology students who hope to have excellent career prospects. (Photo: Furtwangen University of Applied Science)
Industry was very keen on changing the German university system. But as things stand at the moment, it is very difficult to assess the job prospects of the new bachelor’s degree graduates. Professors and students at Furtwangen University have divided opinions. While the professors believe that the bachelor’s degree graduates will have excellent career prospects, the students envisage the situation differently – depending on the subject they are studying: Medical technology students are convinced that they will have excellent career prospects; bio- and process technology students are less optimistic. Many have had a frustrating experience at job fairs or when looking for an opportunity to do their bachelor’s degree theses in companies. “When certain companies realised that we were “only” doing a bachelor’s degree, that was the end of it,” said a student adding somewhat sarcastically: “But I am sure I’ll get a job when I decide to become a biology technician again.” This particular student had previously worked as a biology technician before starting her bachelor’s degree.

Between satisfaction and experimental animal

Some of the students believe that the situation will gradually change and that the bachelor’s degree will achieve greater recognition. There is always the possibility of doing a master’s degree. “This gives us the opportunity of taking a great leap forward in a short period of time,” said some students.

However, there is no unanimous agreement on whether the shift from Diplom to bachelor and master’s degree has been successful or whether there are still some issues to be ironed out. While some find the new two-tier system fine, others have often felt like experimental animals and have not always been happy with the structural changes and new subject combinations.

Further information:
Furtwangen University of Applied Science
Prof. Anton Karle, Prorector
Robert-Gerwig-Platz 1
78120 Furtwangen
Tel.: +49 (0)7723/920-2190
Fax: +49 (0)7723/920-2618
E-mail: karle(at)hs-furtwangen.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/no-unanimous-feedback-possible